Ode to a Teacher

I have a friend who pays an inordinate amount of attention to obituaries.

It’s not like he’s of an age where one would watch to be aware of the passing of friends. He’s always been like this.

He’s the one who tells me when a friend’s parent has passed, or perhaps the untimely death of an old acquaintance in our age group, or an important yet little known person who influenced our chosen brand of American culture.

Earlier this week I got a text from him that said “Mrs. Sokolowski died. 89 years old.”

Wow.

Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Eighth grade? Seventh grade?

It seems some of my best teachers came from that time of my schooling. Anthony Dyer was middle school too.

These are the teachers who pushed me. These are the teachers who knew I could do better than what I did.

Mrs. Sokolowski was a hard-ass. No excuses were good enough. She insisted on work done well. She scoffed at efforts less than 110%. She scowled and growled and hissed and snapped. Right now my mind pictures a viper.

She was the matriarch of Memorial Middle school, possibly I have that impression because her daughter worked there too. Miss Sokolowski taught French which I took two years of (and passed) but with which I was completely lost and decidedly unfluent in, when I was in France. Mrs. Sokolowski taught English and writing. (Not that this is any of my best writing but it’s just coming off the top of my head – and yes, I see the awkwardness of some of the previous sentences.)

Along with the babysitter of all my young years, Mrs. Bostock, Mrs. Sokolowski was very important to the shaping of my writer-brain. And Mr. Dyer was there to teach me how to think, how to see the big picture as well as the details and comprehend the nuances to the shaping of civilization.

I was an excellent student in Middle school. Hungry for the knowledge these people could give me, rebellious slightly and always a bit of a lazy student, they drew out the best in me.

When asked most of my life who was my best teacher ever, I was always inclined to point the finger at Mr. Dyer. A large man with piercing blue eyes, a shock of yellow blond hair, and the voice of a Viking, he was flamboyant, loud, intimidating and endlessly entertaining. Mrs. Sokolowski was old even then, with her curled grey old-lady hair and glasses. And she was a little mean. She was the kind of teacher who might have a ruler in her hand to slap loudly on a student’s desk. She was relentless and maybe not so well liked. She may not have been as entertaining, and it may have been harder to sit in her class, but she was without doubt a force to be reckoned with and a remarkable teacher.

Beyond Middle school my thirst for schoolwork waned considerably.

My teachers were less interesting, less motivating. They seemed to be sort of bumbling and ineffectual.

This may have been due to my own lifestyle changes, it was the start of high school where I met a whole new crew of fascinating long-haired boys. Boys more interested in music and marijuana than in schoolwork or knowledge. But it seems to me, when I look back on it, that part of the problem was that I had come up against teachers who were not as smart as me. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I felt then as if they had little to teach me. Certainly I was learning new things in circles I hadn’t even known existed and school didn’t afford me opportunities that interested me as much as watching ‘the band’ learn new songs, hanging out in sand lots on mountain tops having keg parties and learning to know a whole new crowd of people, and a whole new introduction to music.

It’s probably wrong of me to blame this disinterest and this turning from school on my teachers, there were other factors in my life that precipitated these changes in me.

Certainly there were a few memorable teachers in high school, including Mr. Adams and Mr. Seibal(?) but this post isn’t about them.

When I was in my early 40s I went to the post office one random day and Mrs. Sokolowski recognized me. Many people from my past recognize me because somehow I look just the same now as I did when I was 8, and 25. It took a moment for me to place her, then I smiled. A few moments of chit chat and she got serious and said “May I ask you something?”

She asked me – “Did we do right by you? In school? I know we did okay with the average students, but I always worried about you smart kids. Did we challenge you? Did we set you on the right path? Did we do okay?”

It seemed such a burning question inside her, I was surprised.

I was moved by her query. I guess I’d never thought about a teacher’s perspective on someone like me. I guess I didn’t know, that back then, they knew I was smart. Isn’t that silly? I knew. I knew they treated me differently, placed me in advanced classes and whatnot. And I knew they worried about me in high school when my grades began to drop, (when they pulled me into the guidance office and told me I was hanging with the wrong crowd,) but I didn’t know I mattered to any of them. Not really.

I saw it though, that day, in her eyes. She truly cared to know if she’d done a good job. Not for her sake, but for mine. I mattered to her. This was literally stunning.

I didn’t know, other than theoretically, that a teacher truly cared about the trajectory of a single student, like an arrow she’d had a part in aiming.

I told her the truth.

She’d done the best she could with me. She engaged me and taught me well. I told her I’d lost interest through high school, perhaps because I didn’t have teachers of her caliber. I’d not gone to college, instead I traveled the country for nearly a decade, then I’d opened my own successful business (which I was 12 or 13 years into owning at the time) and that I’d have to say yes, she had, they had, done okay by me. They’d taught me to think and learn and I couldn’t have asked for better.

We parted happily and I thought of that encounter often. I related it to friends many times through the past bunch of years, with awe at her concern, and honor that she thought of me at all.

Before I relate what it was like when I went to her wake (which is the point of this post) I’d like to tell how after the wake, I went to dinner with a teacher friend. He assured me that teachers do indeed think often of individual students and lay awake at night wondering if they’ve done right by these kids. And when talk turned to other areas of our lives, and an idea came forward that he could utilize in his teaching, and I watched his eyes light up with the possibilities of this new idea and how it could and will affect the experience his students will have; I thought of her.

I felt compelled to go to the wake. The point of a wake is to pay one’s respects to the departed. I didn’t expect to know anyone there, unless Miss Sokolowski, who was surely no longer Miss Sokolowski might be there, and I hoped she was.

I walked in to a mostly empty funeral home. The emptiest wake I’d ever attended. There were a few people looking at the photo board. There were pictures of her in the 40s, a glamorous looking woman with  perfect 40s hair. There were pictures of her as a young girl, grainy sepia toned photos, a little girl on a red wagon, a little girl looking into a stream. There were pictures of her as an old woman, smiling around a table with other old women. None of them looked like my Mrs. Sokolowski. But then, there was one small photo, from an instamatic camera, with film color that’s not holding up well, of her accepting an award or something at a podium among diners. Ah! There she was.

I looked around – I wanted to tell someone – look! There she is – my teacher!

There was no one to tell.

It was an open casket.

I walked over and stood before her. Her skin was grey and she was old and didn’t look like anyone I knew. But I looked past that, I looked through to the woman I saw in the photos, to the woman who waggled her finger at me and INSISTED I do as well as I could.

I thanked her for caring. About me and about all the many students whose lives she had undoubtedly touched as much as she did my own. I thanked her for our encounter at the post office. I thanked her for all that she gave of herself. I told her I hoped her life had been satisfying in all those realms a kid never imagines for a teacher. I told her that I hoped her journeys beyond this planet would afford her heart and soul much peace. I told her she had mattered.

And when I turned from her, I wanted to tell this important information to someone else. I wanted to tell someone that she mattered. There were chairs there for the family, but no one was in them. There were a couple of small groups of people talking amongst themselves. I looked for Karen – Miss Sokolowski. She was not there.

I stood not knowing what to do.

I wanted to shout to the room – hey! This lady over here! She mattered! Do you know that?!

I looked back at her for one final Thank You, and then I left.

Goodbye Mrs. Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Thank you, you did good. You mattered.