In memory of a teacher who mattered

In memory of a teacher who mattered

I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I’m not all that stupid; still, it has come as a shock to me that people I knew are, well, dead.

Since returning to my hometown last month, that’s been a recurring theme, the way I’ll bring up someone’s name only to be told he or she has died. It’s happened over and over, so much to the point I hesitate to even go down that road for fear of learning someone I was hoping to see isn’t around anymore.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the arc of my life so far, I left Ohio in the year 2000 to accept a job in North Carolina.

And then, late last year, my wife and I decided to move back home.

The reasons, while hardly inconsequential, are largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, owing to the fact that here we are and here we’ll stay, sort of like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, except for the Witch of the East, crushed under the weight of a falling farmhouse.

As the coroner of Land of Oz so pithily puts it:

“She’s not only merely dead:

She’s really most sincerely dead.”

“The Wizard of Oz” remains among my favorite films, right up there with “Dr. Strangelove,” “Body Heat,” “Psycho,” “The King of Hearts” and “Casablanca,” though that list is subject to change; in fact, it’s likely that before I finish this piece, “Chinatown,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Paper Chase” and “High Noon” will be knocking on my door, wanting to be let in to join their number.

Oh, and one more thing while we’re on the subject of classic cinema: I finally got the chance to watch “Oppenheimer” last week, and while it’s a staggering achievement, it’s about an hour too long, and I found myself struggling to make it to the closing credits.

I know all about that. More than one editor has complained about the same thing when proofreading my work, saying things like, “Nobody wants to read 75 inches on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’”

Which brings us back to the topic at hand; that is the dead … though in Buffy’s case, we’re dealing primarily with the undead.

As I mentioned at the outset, I’ve been inundated with news that people I’ve known have died, which, given the length of time I’ve been gone, isn’t all that surprising. But it’s taken some getting used to, the piercing look in people’s eyes when they share the sad news.

“I had no idea,” I’ll say, sometimes adding, “What happened?”

It reminds me of the third act in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. It’s set in the graveyard on a hill above Grover’s Corners, the New Hampshire hamlet where everyone knows everyone, not unlike my hometown. We see Emily, who has died in childbirth, trying to take her place among the departed but wanting to go back for just one more day, a normal day, just to feel something, to savor it all.

The twist, of course, is she learns that going back is impossible because life moves along so innocently, so placidly, so imperceptibly that no one ever really appreciates it as it happens.

“Does anyone ever realize life while they live it?” she wonders.

So that’s where my head’s been for the last couple of months, simultaneously absorbing the present as I superimpose the past.

It’s been a delicate juggling act, and I’m still trying to find the guardrails, not wanting to upset those who have lived through periods of loss and sadness even as I come to terms with the news.

Allow me to share one specific example.

When I was back there in elementary school, there was one teacher who was neither a nun nor a priest. He was just a man in a place at a time when our lives would intersect with lasting implications. Because of staffing irregularities and other parochial problems, he was my teacher for fourth, fifth and sixth grades, my wonder years.

It was clear from the outset that his classroom was unlike any other in the school, a place where ideas often occluded dogma, where freedom of expression was encouraged even as discipline ruled.

Penmanship had its place adjacent to isometric exercise, spelling was stressed even as he added a new word every day to our vocabulary, current events held sway as history evolved and, every now and then, he’d dismiss us for an unscheduled recess session, just a quick 15 minutes to give our minds a little rest.

He played his acoustic guitar and taught us the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which we sang so well he wiped away the tears.

He understood just when to leaven his strict rules with a license to watch a World Series game on fall afternoons, wheeling in a TV set under the guise of some bit of esoteric educational fare.

We watched space rockets take off for the heavens, solved quotients and diagrammed sentences, headed off for retreats and visited forests and fields, sometimes doing volunteer work.

Was he perfect?

Hardly. In fact, he was the most divisive teacher I ever had, just as likely to instill fear in some students as he built up others’ confidence. To this day his methods inspire varying opinions.

He was very cognizant of his uneven legacy, something we talked about at some length when I showed up unannounced at his house one summer’s afternoon when I was back home for a class reunion.

As I pulled into the driveway, he slowed the riding mower and stared in my direction, a smile slowly spreading across his face.

I started to introduce myself, but he cut me off and offered his hand.

“Of course I remember you, Mike,” he said and asked me inside.

Over iced tea and cookies his wife had baked, we sat side by side on a screened-in porch that afforded a view of his acreage, the sun slanting across the newly mowed lawn, birds circling in the sky.

Our conversation was free flowing and companionable, once I got past my initial feeling of intimidation; this, after all, was the most influential teacher I’d ever had, up to and including college.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, I mentioned the guitar he used to play as he taught us songs we’d perform for guests and parents or, most of the time, just for our own edification, the feeling that learning needn’t be facts and dates … but music too.

He excused himself and returned a few minutes later with the very instrument I recalled from 40 years before, and I snapped a photo.

So last week, when I was told he had died several years earlier, I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was well into old age by then and had lived a long life, one that touched so many others, some for better, some for worse, and he understood that duality implicitly.

Here’s to Mr. Douglas J. Mark, educator, molder of young minds, font of wisdom, disciplinarian, a teacher like no other, an original.

Mike Dewey can be reached at or at 1317 Troy Road, Ashland, OH 44805. He invites you to find him on his Facebook page, where the lessons of the past continue to matter.

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