I assume most people have had important figures in their lives who help shape them, for better or worse, into who they eventually became. Obviously, parents and grandparents play a major role, and are the people with the greatest influence in our lives for the longest amount of time. But there are others along the way, including teachers, coaches, neighbors, and extracurricular program leaders who also make an impact, at least, for those lucky enough to have good people and good opportunities in their lives when they’re young. I can still name every one of my grade school teachers in order: Mrs. Orenic, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Hemp, Mrs. Myers [I’ll come back to her], Mrs. Cromwell, Mrs. Tucker, and Mrs. Reid. Middle school teachers, them, I can barely recall, except for Mrs. Richardson the math teacher, who probably was pretty cool but always at her wit’s end and was fairly strict. My high school teachers were largely good people, too, but aside from the ones with outsized personalities or who were very strict, they’ve mostly faded into the distant recesses of my unconscious mind. But maybe I’ll dig out a few names there for a future column. Stick with me for now.
The first adult outside my family who made a big and lasting impression on me was my grade school librarian, Ms. Dorothy Vickers-Shelley. She was a tall, gregarious woman, who, upon recollection, reminds me of a someone out of a Blaxploitation film, but she was probably more modest than that in her appearance in reality. She was heralded far and wide as a world class educator, and she was delighted at all of the opportunities to interact with and teach children. Whether you came into the library on your own or with a class, she always went out of her way to make you feel welcome and help you find something of interest to take home and dig into. I can probably credit her, in part, with my love of reading today (my mom and maternal grandpa played big roles in that department as well). One thing that I’ll always remember about Ms. Vickers-Shelley was this motto she had and would have all classes recite when they came into the library for a program: “Life is short; therefore, I shall be a crusader in the fight against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.” When students said the word “myself,” we would always point our thumbs to our heart. It took several years until I fully understood the gravity of that statement, but I think of it often today. In fact, I have a cut-out of it from my hometown newspaper hanging on my office door. I believe they still run it in the paper on the anniversary of her birth or death every year. Pretty cool.
The next highly influential person would have to be my Scoutmaster, Judge Harry Clem. He had our Boy Scout troop so well-organized and finely run that it had to be the model for all others to follow. As a judge, he was well-connected, so we always had access to necessary resources, and coupled with a number of motivated and engaged parents with great talents, collectively they made sure we boys had great, and rewarding, experiences for years. Weekly meetings, monthly camping trips, lock-ins, and field trips, all the gear necessary to live on the land for long weekends, you name it, we had it. Some of my favorite experiences then have set me up for some of my favorite experiences today. Judge Clem stayed with the troop even after his son earned his Eagle badge (the culminating point of Scouts), so he truly was devoted to making kids’ lives better.
Related, Jon Dimit, who was a local school board member, among other things, who led up the local chapter of the Explore Post – a sort-of post-Boy Scouts group for high school kids who were still interested in the high adventure and less in the formal educational aspects of Scouts. He would organize an annual trip to Colorado (from the Midwest) to ski, with him driving one of the buses (no small feat and no short trip – 16+ hours in a vehicle that barely could get to 70MPH); whitewater rafting trips in the summers to Tennessee, North Carolina, or West Virginia; and spelunking and climbing trips closer to home. Again, another person who really wanted to give kids experiences they could build on for their lives.
The aforementioned Mrs. Myers (3rd grade) is a teacher who resonates with me, though there are several others who I had good experiences with and some fond memories of. It should be no surprise that I was always in trouble as a kid, but her class was the only year in my life I didn’t get in trouble in school; and in fact, I only got grounded once outside of it (for skipping soccer practice and lying about it to my parents). She had such a winning personality. She was so kind and understanding. She saw me as someone with a lot more potential than I let on. I miss her greatly! One cool memory about her is when she entered a group of us in a lip-syncing contest that we practiced a lot for. This was shortly after the Bears won the Super Bowl, so we did the Super Bowl Shuffle, and I, a scrawny little runt, played the role of William “Refrigerator” Perry. Man, she was cool.
Last on this list are two more teachers, but they’re not on here so much for their teaching skills or ability to get me to do my work and stay out of trouble. The first is Coach Blackman, my high school soccer coach, and Mr. Sumbler, my auto mechanics instructor. Coach B was a no-nonsense kind of guy that would use humor as a reward. I was always terrible at soccer and never took anything seriously, so it’s a wonder he kept me on the team, but I think he saw potential in me – potential that I never reached. Also, I was well-liked and helped to balance out his heavy-handedness, and I was the Ace when it came to fundraising every year: I always made the most money in our fund drive, usually by hundreds of dollars over the runner-up. I learned a lot from him, I just wished I’d learned it while he was teaching me.
Mr. Sumbler was a character. I only had him for one semester, so the shortest relationship of anyone on this list, but he was too cool. He was a retired Marine who drove a conversion van with the license plate “AWOL 1.” He was built like a brick shithouse, and he had great catchphrases like, “This ain’t time for smoking and joking” when he wanted us to settle down and pay attention, or “Quit talking that jive” when we would be trying to speak to one another on the downlow and he’d catch us. Perhaps the coolest thing about him was his constant encouragement for us to bring in our cars – or our parents’ or friends’ – to his shop to work on them after school hours. He wanted us to learn valuable life lessons.
I guess I’ve been pretty lucky during my childhood and adolescence to have such awesome people in my life. I only hope you did to.