Dear Mr. Zabel,
I wonder if you knew what a driving force you were in my life? People often talk about teachers and their influence, but it is a lot harder to see when you’re living the experience. It’s easier, looking back, to point to something and say “yes, that’s an influence”. You always made it seem effortless; it never came across like you were trying to win anyone over, but in that nonchalance, you captured us all.
AP English might have been easier than others, because we wanted to be there (or at least our parents wanted us to be there) but that didn’t mean that we weren’t still sixteen years old and inclined toward sloth and apathy. But then you’d talk. You’d tell us a story or read us something from the paper, somehow, this inspired us to tell you a story or about something we heard or saw on television and before we understood what was happening, we would be discussing symbolism and parallels and metaphors with the ease of literature purists and, well, you.
If we weren’t inspired by you, if we weren’t inspired by the reading, if we weren’t insprired by the writing or the learning or the doing, you would utter your catch phrase.
“Think outside the box”
I can still hear your voice saying those words. No matter who utters them today or where I read them, I always process them in your voice, in your tone. I didn’t always understand, back then, what that meant. But over the years, I’ve learned to live that way. I’ve learned to work that way. I’ve learned to understand that there isn’t always a right way or a best way or an easiest way and sometimes you just have to make your own way.
When we’d stumble across something that was hard, you had this look. Like you were unimpressed with our fear or our trepidation. You knew we were smart enough to figure it out and you expected that we would know it, too. That’s the thing I take from your teachings, the one thing I truly learned from you. Figure it out.
I remember when you died, I went to your funeral and your brother was there. He’s a friend of my parents, you know, and he said to me, “it was kind of you to come with your mom and dad” and I replied that I didn’t come with them, I came because you were my favorite teacher.
I know that pleased him to hear it, but, looking back Mr. Z, I didn’t really challenge myself to use the best word there. You weren’t my favorite teacher. You were my most challenging teacher. You were the teacher with the highest expectations. You were the teacher for whom I performed the best. You were the teacher from which I best learned how to be me. You challenged and frustrated and impressed and inspired and amused and imprinted. There are so many active verbs I could employ to describe what you meant to me it would be impossible to choose.
But, I don’t have to choose. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever your beliefs, I know that you are well aware of the impact you had on thousands of young kids. Maybe not all of them remember you, maybe not even most, but I remember and I carry your teachings forward and that is how you will never be forgotten.
Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for fixing my “Huckleberry Finn”.
Thank you for being part of my life,
(to see why I am doing this, read this)