Saturday, March 10, 2012

One of the Greats...

When one of my friends from my younger days posted on Facebook this morning that his father had been gone for 24 years as of yesterday, I couldn’t help but be taken just a bit aback.  24 years.  Where has the time gone?

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into his 7th grade English class.  I was so excited to be in his classroom—he was one of the greats.  You know, those teachers whose reputation precedes them.  My older sister had Mr. Kruesel as her teacher and all of her stories made me long to have him as mine.   Mr. Kruesel did things differently.  He was able to connected with a roomful of 13-year olds like none other.  He listened, when other adults shut us down.  He laughed with us, when other adults told us to stop being so immature and silly.  He understood that we had feelings, when other adults told us we couldn’t possibly understand—after all, we were only 13.

It wasn’t until my 8th grade year that I formed a real bond with my teacher—and lucky for me he would be my English teacher again!  For the first time that I can remember, our school hired on a school psychologist—who was always trying to intervene with the girl drama my friends and I invoked.  Then there were talks of suicide—and to be honest, I don’t know if it was coming from our school or from the high school, but it changed things for me.  I will never forget walking into Mr. Kruesel’s classroom that day.  He was somber as we all took our seats.  He stood in front of us and started talking about something other adults would be too afraid to mention.  With this gentle voice and these kind hands, he maneuvered his way around the classroom telling all of us that if anything ever got so bad that we thought about suicide to just call him first.  And with that he handed each of us a tiny slip of paper with his home telephone number on it.  I’ll never forget that moment.  He let me know I mattered.  I still have that little slip of paper, with his phone number on it.  That little piece of paper reassured me—it allowed me to know that no matter how difficult life got, someone out there would listen.  I’ve kept it over the years in my little brown treasure box—tucked away with all of my important mementos from my childhood.

I was elated when I found out Mr. K would be moving over to the high school to teach my freshman year.  And who was my teacher once again?  Yep, Mr. K.  I remember when he kept me after school one day, to ask me what was up with all my silliness in class.  I told him I was bored, that I already knew it all.  Instead of a stern reprimand or sending me to detention like so many of my other teachers, he told me I’d be teaching the class the next day.  Really?  And I did.  I remember getting up there and loving it.  I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t intimidated by being in front of my peers.  Instead I embraced what would be my life’s calling—only I didn’t know it then. 

Mr. K allowed us to be creative—oh the stories my classmates and I would come up with in his class.  He instilled in me a passion for the written word--another of my life's passions.  We were all just in love with our English class—because we adored our teacher. 

Sophomore year I wasn’t as lucky.  I got stuck in some boring, horrid English class.  I don’t even remember the teacher’s name to be honest—although it would be easy to find.  But I do remember my bestie Tracey and I enrolling in a Heros and Villains class, just to have Mr. K as our teacher for the 4th year in a row.  I had no interest whatsoever in Heros and Villians, but I loved being in Kruesel’s class.  So there I was, once again. 

Tracey and I were ridiculous in that class.  I remember sometimes showing up, in the cold WI winters, in my jean skirt and 80s top.  Mr. K would shake his head and tell me, “Only you Meredith would be wearing that in this weather.”  I’d laugh and nod my head. 

My locker was right outside of his classroom, and every morning he’d be there with a kind greeting, a hug when needed, and a chat about something.  He was so much more than just a teacher.

I’ll never forget the time my friends and I decided to TP his house.  We snuck up his road, thought we were being so slick, when we could see him step outside donning his shotgun.  “Who’s out there?” he hollered from his porch.  All of us girls took off running, jumping into Tracey’s car and tearing down the road—yeah, we didn’t get him…

And then came the day during my sophomore year when Mr. K stopped coming to school.  We were all concerned and they told us he had pneumonia.   And we kept waiting for him to come back.  I’ll never forget the day he showed back up in class.  He was wearing a tam on his head and had lost a ton of weight.  He stood in front of the class and told us all that he had cancer.  That he shouldn’t have smoked all those years.  And that it spread all over his body.  Tears started rolling down all of our faces and that’s when he stopped us.  “Don’t be sad,” he told us.  “I’ve had an amazing life—let’s celebrate that.” 

When I think about that day, I can’t help but be in awe of how he was able to put us first, even then.  He didn’t allow us to hear the news through the grapevine or speculate from someone else.  He met everything so head on.  I wanted to be like him.

That summer of ’87 I moved away from WI and back to RI.  I was not a happy camper, but due to my parents’ financial situation, I didn’t have much of a choice.  March of ’88 was when I got the phone call from one of my good WI friends.  I remember not saying anything.  I just hung up the phone and sunk to the floor.  My older sister cried too, when she heard the news.  Mr. K meant something to her as well. 

When I finally took the time to think about what I wanted to do with my life—and granted I was almost in my 30s before this happened—I knew I wanted to inspire people the way Mr. K was able to inspire me.  I wanted to invoke that excitement, that joy, that love for learning.  I wanted to validate kids’ feelings, thoughts, intellect in the way he validated mine.  Whenever I thought of the kind of teacher I wanted to be, I always thought of Mr. K—how could I not?

Yesterday as my 7th grade classroom was begging me to tell them one of my WI stories, one asked why I became a teacher.  I started telling them about Mr. Kruesel—my English teacher that inspired me to become their teacher.  A bit coincidental how his story was shared with my students exactly 24 years after the day he passed.  I didn’t know it then, and wouldn’t until I saw his son’s Facebook posting this morning.

Thank you, Mr. K, for inspiring me to teach every day—and to love what I do.  And like you told me many years ago, when I was struggling to make sense of what was happening to you—Memories never die.  You were one of the great ones, and with that your life has carried on through others--it sure has carried on through me.

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