Hello, Young Man
An Old Teacher
I stood in Philter trying to decide on a drink to wash down the ham and egg sandwich I had just ordered. The menu was full of all kinds of exotic coffees. The cool hipster behind the counter suggested the Kii Kenya. He said it was like no other coffee he had ever tasted.
“It puts the mind at ease,” he said.
I leaned over to get a smell of the coffee. The steam felt good and smelled of honey and citrus. The combination of the two did put my “nerves at ease.” Sometimes life has a way of getting in the way of being relaxed and I was dealing with the possibility of a month long hassle with insurance companies, auto-repair shops, and the ego busting embarrassment of being forced to rent a mini van for about four weeks. My wife had the misfortune of running into a deer and while she was unharmed beyond a seat belt beating, the deer and the truck looked as if they had gone a few rounds. The deer did not make it and the truck took quite a bit of cosmetic damage.
I blew on the coffee, took a sip, and savored the first taste. Coffee often provides me with a little buzz, but this initial sip brought a full fledged spinner. I sat back, looked to the door, and felt a warmth rushing through my body. Once, in my freshman year of college, I got the spins after going to a party. This was worse than that. The warmth and dizziness teamed to make me feel as if I was about to lose control. Panic started to set in and just when I thought I should call for help, the spinning stopped.
“That was crazy,” I thought.
Then the door opened. I guess after the coffee I was in the right frame of mind for what was about to happen.
A man entered and smiled in my direction. He was a bit overweight under his gray overcoat. He wore thick, black framed glasses and carried a worn leather briefcase. A simple white shirt and black tie complemented his black pants. The man reminded me of a teacher from the 50s or 60s or maybe a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock. I could tell as he took a few steps that walking was hard for this man. His feet barely left the floor as he shuffled the ten or so feet to my table.
“Hello, young man,” he said as he removed his coat and sat across from me.
“Mr. Freed?” I asked.
“It’s been too long, Mr. Hancock.”
In these crazy times, I’ve learned to be suspicious of what does not seem real. Mr. Freed was my Government teacher in 1984. He died during my senior year. Yet, somehow he was sitting in front of me and reaching into his satchel like he did in his one-on-one conferences in high school. Back then he would deliver the news on the progress we were making in class and how he expected us to continue improving. He was fair, direct, and honest with whatever his observations were his chicken scratched yellow legal pad.
“So, you’ve been busy, Mr. Hancock.”
“Yes, I have, but you are…”
“Here now,” he interrupted, “Let’s talk about you.”
He finally pulled out a faded legal pad. He peered through his thick lenses and flipped through the pages without stopping to study them. He seemed to already know what he wanted to say, but he just wanted to make sure he had all the information that was needed.
“Okay, Mr. Hancock… First, thank you for the times we had at the hospital. I enjoyed quizzing you on your notes and it helped me through a tough time.”
I have never forgotten those days at the hospital with Mr. Freed. He was suffering with serious blood clots in his legs. His situation was so bad that his physical therapist had shared with me that his health was dire. Even with death so near, Mr. Freed asked that I bring my notes to the hospital and while I wheeled him from his room to his physical therapy sessions, he would quiz me on the notes or deliver an impromptu lecture on the topic at hand.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Freed, but I think you did more for me than I did for you.”
The directness of Mr. Freed came out.
“Stop that. Learn how to take a compliment without making some statement. Just say, thank you.”
“How hard was that? Don’t answer.” I may as well have been eighteen because he had my attention like he did all those years ago.
I looked around the coffee house and everything was going on as normal. No one seemed bothered that an old man who had been dead for over thirty years had walked in and started schooling his old student on the art of accepting a compliment. In fact, I hadn’t even questioned him as to why he was here. As I began to ask what was going on, Mr. Freed resumed our conference.
“We are here to discuss your progress since our last one-on-one. I see some fine things here, a good family, solid achievement in education, a commitment to creativity, yes, all good. I also see some areas that are in need of improvement. Most importantly, you seem at a crossroads professionally. Let’s start there.”
I nodded like when he corrected my writing about mercantilism in high school. Back then, I respected Mr. Freed without question. There was something about his aura that exuded excellence. He had been teaching forever and even got back into the classroom after crossing over to the dark side of administration for awhile. I also saw him as a tough man and a sympathetic figure. There were several stories as to what happened in his life, each involving a car accident on his wedding night. Mr. Freed survived, but his bride was killed in the accident. He would never drive again and I wondered if he had ever been happy after the accident. Perhaps this was why he was so tough. Maybe this was why he was so honest, as he knew that life had no time for wasting. To me, he was an educator, not just a teacher. Life had shown him the importance of perspective and “living,” which was something he wanted us to understand.
“You have been teaching for a long time, Mr. Hancock. How would you describe where you are right now?” he asked.
Wow, his question was a little deeper than my normal coffee shop banter. I poured some more of the Kii Kenya into my mug and took a sip. Then, I answered with a clarity that left no doubt of how I felt.
He leaned in, took off his glasses, and said, “Get over it.”
That was not what I wanted to hear. I was ready for him to start asking more questions about my feelings or what I could do to make teaching more interesting, but what I got was what I would have gotten in 1984, straight talk.
Mr. Freed always walked that edge between calming grandfather and a judge throwing the book at a career criminal. His way could be gentle or uncomfortable, but the message was always singular in it’s purpose. He wanted us to be more than the subject he was teaching.
He wanted us to grow up. He wanted us to be good people.
“Mr. Hancock, I taught for much longer than you have. I never lost sight of the goal. Make the young people think. Make them know that the better they think, the better they will be. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“You seem to have forgotten that your subject is not all there is in the world. That’s a problem with teachers, they think their subject is the most important thing in the classroom. Well, it isn’t, the young people are and your job is about getting them to think.”
“But, Mr. Freed…”
“Not today, young man. You need to listen and think about what I’m saying to you. Think, Mr. Hancock, and you will see that boredom is not what ails you. You will see that it is your limited thinking that is causing your boredom.”
Of course, he was right. Mr. Freed always seemed like he was right. Over the years I had many teachers and professors, but none who got into my head the way that he did. He taught me for only six or seven weeks before going into the hospital. He taught me at Williamsburg Community for just a handful of trips across the hospital. His class was harder than any college course I took. His feedback about my lack of thought was spot on and I knew there was nothing to do but follow his advice and start thinking.
But then, I haven’t grown up yet…
“How, Mr. Freed? How do I stay interested when it’s the same every year? Same content. Same meetings. Always the same.”
He sat back and just looked at me. Neither disappointment nor encouragement were suggested by his face. It was like playing poker with Hitchcock. He had a sinister lack of expression and from his cold glare, I knew I better come up with something.
“The students are different,” I said.
Back to Reality
“How was the Kenya?” asked the guy from behind the counter.
I wasn’t sure what had happened. Everything in the room was as it had been since I arrived, only Mr. Freed was gone and a yellow legal pad was on the table.
“Um, it was awesome. Thank you.”
I pulled the pad closer and looked over the scribbles that were there. There was no making sense of any of it. My best guess was that it was shorthand, but right at the end, printed in the most perfect handwriting was some Freedian advice, “The students are always different. Remember that.”
“Thank you, Mr. Freed.”