Genetics of Humanity

July 7, 2012
By Danaite Hamnot SILVER, Springfield, Virginia
Danaite Hamnot SILVER, Springfield, Virginia
8 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Mr. Barry Mensh is wearing his signature light washed “dad” jeans and a simple black tee-shirt when he greets me at the door of his classroom. His eyes immediately settle on my coffee cup, and he asks me what he’s asked me almost every day, “Are you drinking coffee? You know it’s bad for you,” the parental admonishment not-so-subtle in his voice. I smiled and shook my head no, informing him that it was only tea. It had been about six in the morning, and the absence of the herd of kids that usually gather in his room was strange. As I made my way to a chair by his desk, two brown-framed school photos caught my eye. His angelic young daughters smiling back at me sprung the memory of when Mr. Mensh would ramble about his “little angels.” I felt creepy, because I knew so much about them just by his offhand comments about his children in class.

The interview hadn’t started yet because Mr. Mensh insisted that he had to feed his snake. I took the opportunity to observe the extended shelf along the window. It was covered with mini mountains of student papers that were probably graded but haven’t been passed out, a transparent container with every accessory at Staples and a black shelf to turn in his famous biology review packets you’d spend Friday nights doing. It wouldn’t do him justice to call this place a classroom; it seemed that an explosion of biology occurred along with traces of runners, influential people and posters preserving adolescence. Yet, the reason for the design of his sanctuary is all simplicity: “I just want there to be something my students can be stimulated by, if not me.” It’s clear that Room 331 at Lee offers Mr. Mensh something more than just a paycheck. In fact, he tells me nonchalantly that “when it came, it usually sat on the coffee table.” Mr. Mensh is Gandhi incarnate: an individual who values family, passion and humanity in general as his guiding principles for his teaching and for his life.

Growing up, young Mr. Mensh didn’t admire overexposed celebrities and beefed up bad boys like his peers. Instead, the people that won his respect lived with him under the same red brick house his father had built. He was grateful for every painstaking step his parents had taken for him and his sister. “I remember everything they did was for us. Their world revolved around us,” Mr. Mensh says with a nostalgic smile. From his mother’s morning breakfasts to his father’s late nights at work, he never undermined the challenges his parents endured for his “typical American childhood in Virginia.” At twelve years old, Mr. Mensh’s deep appreciation of family values rose exponentially. “On a Friday night, at our youth group a rabbi who just came back from Israel, told us we were going to watch a movie. We said ‘Cool’ and sat down with our cookies and juice as the lights went off. All of a sudden we saw bodies being bulldozed.” Genocide was something foreign to Mr. Mensh; he’d always seen the brighter part of the world and probably still does. There’s no doubt that even decades after discovering his grandmother’s inhumane experience during the holocaust, it still shook him to his core. “I think the isolation is what got to her most,” Mr. Mensh choked as he pinched the inner corners of his left palm. The shock of atrocity was tremendous, but it equipped him with core values enabling him to mesh the paradoxical aspects of his life and rebound as an individual passionate about making a change in the lives of others.

At first, I was dumbfounded that biology teacher and running coach weren’t on Mr. Mensh’s life agenda, but realized no career could alter his destiny of being a benefactor. To any normal person, spending thirty-two years in high school would cause multiple hallucinations, nervous breakdowns and midlife crises, but to Mr. Mensh it’s a place that offers the creation of masterpieces. “You can do whatever you want as a teacher. I think it’s like having a blank palate. You have the potential to be the greatest artist in the world,” he said enthusiastically, his passion for his career resonating with every word. He’s moving his hands around and talking at lightning speed by now, and preoccupied by the principles which he has based his profession he doesn’t notice the annoying fly that has been buzzing around his head for the past two minutes. His passion for biology and inspiring young minds is the seemingly bottomless motivation Mr. Mensh possesses to be both an educator and a mentor in all aspects of his students’ lives.

Close student and former runner, Damtew, expresses his gratitude for his relationship with Mr. Mensh, “Coach Mr. Mensh has inspired me to be a good person and has always helped whoever was in need. He’s more than a coach to the cross country team because everyone knows how much he cares about everything else, not just athletics. He is one of a kind, and has the biggest heart. He’s truly a person I admire and look up to.”

His ability to embrace and listen to his students without being supercilious has never ceased to amaze me. Despite most classes, where the teacher’s assistance stops once the period is over, Mr. Mensh has profoundly affected his students even after school was closed. “A lot of kids I know hurt for stuff. I think that is also the reason why in my later years here, we’ve taken in some students.” Goosebumps had formed on my arms, listening to the words of an angel.

The years of teaching helped him comprehend the trials and tribulations of growing up. This was crucial once he took on the biggest challenge of his life: fatherhood. The effects of living with three women had showcased through his sensitivity of all female-like problems during our sex education class the prior year. What was also evident was his pure dedication and warm-hearted attitude for his kids. “Why would you bring another life into this world, if you weren’t willing to die for them? That’s the way I feel about it. Everything I do, me coming here [school] is for my daughters.” Fiddling with the lid of his MacDonald’s coffee lid, he was hunting for words to help me fathom his love for them. No one had ever left him speechless; these two girls must be spectacular. The other woman in his life is one he wore a hillbilly outfit that consisted of a white undershirt and overalls when first meeting. With the deprived sense of fashion, his wife was probably won over by his charming personality and perfectly tanned completion. Flustered he stated, “She’s my best friend.”

As a regular blood donor, I wondered what possessed him to want a needle plunged into his arm. He then proceeded to unfold his right arm and show me exactly where the needle was punctured. His reddish pinched skin was presented in front of me, “I just feel like if there was nobody donating blood, there would be people dying. And I can’t let people die.” Cleary the word humanitarian would be an understatement. The capability of connecting with his students on something other than Deoxyribonucleic acid was refreshing. He says humans are part of an insignificant species, but I know Mr. Mensh is a rare breed.

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