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Goodbye, Mr. R.

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Our English teacher, Mrs. C., was pregnant with a baby boy. She was walking around like she was attempting to smuggle an exercise ball under her dress. Her charming pregnant-woman waddle reminded me of those weird Weeble toys that wiggled but never fell over. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, you know? Anyways, being in her extremely delicate state of “pregnant and about to burst” she had made preparations for when she would be gone for an extended period of time to take care of her little exercise ball of joy; Mrs. C. was training a substitute for us.

My memories of the substitute-in-training were hazy at best and, well, to be honest, nonexistent at worst. I knew she was in the classroom while Mrs. C. was teaching but that was only during the normal school day. During my class, which took place after school, she was never there any longer than a few minutes and that was only on the rare days. In fact, I don’t even know her name. Not that her name ever actually mattered to me since Ms. (insert a name here) never got to the substituting that she was training for.

The details of her absence were never fully explained to my class. I only remember a few vague mentions of a change of plan. What I do remember is sitting at my desk, a worksheet in front of me, speculating the various reasons why Ms. Skinny-White-Chick-Whose-Name-I-Still-Can’t-Remember had to ditch out on us. Maybe she had been reunited with her long lost lover who had just returned from the war in Iraq and they decided to get married by Elvis in Los Vegas. Maybe she had found the Word of God and became a missionary who got sent to Wheretheheckistan to convert all the heathens. Maybe she was secretly a spy that was sent to uncover any drug-trafficking or illegal chicken gambling that might’ve been happening in the teacher‘s lounge.

Whatever the reason, she never got to her job and Mrs. C’s Pre-AP English II class got yet another substitute. (And Ms. Under-cover spy never found out about that chicken gambling)

I’d say that the first day that Mr. R showed up to take care of us until Mrs. C came back was so life altering that it’s forever ingrained in my mind and soul but then I’d be lying and I’ve heard it’s bad to lie. He was sitting at her desk as the twelve students of our eighth-hour class filtered through the door. I noticed that he looked fresh out of college and his blonde hair was longer than mine. My prowess of recollection is, as you might have noticed, pretty feeble when concerning details so I can’t say anything specific beyond that he was there in the classroom that day and we noticed that he was there. So it wasn’t the most thrilling first day of teaching ever, so what?

What I remember the most vividly was the research paper that Mr. R assigned. Maybe it was because that was the longest project we ever did or maybe it was because I was actually a bit interested in my topic. All the same, the time we took writing that paper was what I remembered most clearly about him. I can still feel my heated exasperation toward finding applicable sources, my apprehension of writing a convincing essay, and my anger toward myself for picking such a broad topic. I can freely say “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; I was writing under a supportive, relatable and encouraging teacher but that stupid paper took up most of my time and drove my half-crazy.

We spent what felt like forever on that paper and I, being the procrastinator that I am, didn’t even turn it in on time. After all the advice and help he had given me, I, the ungrateful wretch, had the gall to turn in my research paper late. It was like a kind, old lady giving a little boy candy and when her back was turned, the brat kicked her in the back of the knee and ran off, laughing. I was miserable for days about that especially since Mr. R was generous enough to even give me a passing grade and compliment my writing. I didn’t deserve the grade or the compliment but the fact that he could be so nice even after experiencing my laziness put him high up on my good list. Looking past my slothfulness, he saw what good there was in my work and praised me for it. Not many people would do that.

One of the best things about Mr. R was that he never made us feel inadequate or unintelligent. There were several occasions when he could’ve made one of us feel like a mentally-handicapped kitten that had just relieved itself behind the couch. Instead he behaved as if what we had done or said was perfectly reasonable and well thought-out. I remember one instance when the class was having a conversation while we were writing a personal narrative and somehow the word “hysterectomy” was brought up by Taylor, the girl who sits next to me.

I hadn’t the fainted idea exactly what the topic of the conversation was but, not wanting to feel left out, I had to ask Mr. R, “What’s hysterectomy?” It sounded like a weird STD or some foreign country in the Middle East to me.

He was typing on the computer and paused before he answered me. He didn’t look up but said, “It’s an operation for women so they can’t have babies.”

Feel free to be amazed at my social ineptitude and lack of conversational grace because I know I sure was feeling as awkward as a third-world refugee that had not yet figured out what the toilet was made for.

He had said it so nonchalantly too. If any other teacher had told me, I would felt like an idiot but not with Mr. R.

On his last day of being our long-term substitute, most of his classes had decided to throw him going away parties. I personally had never had never understood the thought process that went behind going away parties. In my opinion, it was sort of like saying, “Hooray! You’re leaving! Let’s celebrate the fact that we won’t see you again any time soon!” All the same, we hung out and had fun one last time.

When the class period and sort-of party was officially over, it still felt like we would see him again on Monday. The fact that Mr. R was leaving us didn’t completely click with me until I was walking down the hallway and he said goodbye for the last time. It was the unsettling feeling you got when change was coming and there was nothing you could do to stop it. We were going to be happy to see Mrs. C again, of course but there was no way to avoid missing Mr. R.

To be honest, I almost didn’t even look back. It was Mr. Rustin himself that initiated our last farewell.

“Bye, Valeri,” he had said. “Keep writing, you’re really good at it.” He then advised me to keep up on my avid reading because my skills showed how much I read. “Ask any writer and he’ll tell you that his ideas and techniques came from reading.”

I had been told occasionally that I was a good writer but nothing anyone had ever said before really gave me encouragement quite like the way Mr. R did. It wasn’t that he was just giving me a pat on the back and a friendly smile like others did, I could sense that he sincerely meant what he was saying and honestly wanted for me to improve. He even told me how I could instead of just expecting me to know how on my own.

The last writing assignment we did was on wisdom and what we thought it meant and one of the definitions the class came up with was learning from experience. I didn’t think of it at the time but I believe Mr. R was wise in his own way. There’s nothing specific I could say to prove my point or any concrete fact that would convince even myself but there was something about him that made him seem wise. Maybe it was that he could explain the lesson in a way that made so much sense. Maybe it was that he stopped and thought about the answers along with us. Or maybe it was that he was old enough to be an adult and therefore had more experience than any of us but he was still young enough to connect with us as teenagers.

So here I am, ironically writing about a person who encouraged me to write. Nothing much has changed since Mr. R left us; I still read too much and I still procrastinate. In fact, as I type this, I’m supposed to be doing homework. Maybe we’ll never see him again but when I win an award for my writing and poetry, Mr. R is going to be one of the first people I thank in my acceptance speech. Thank you, Mr. R, I actually believe in the skills that I have now.



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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

Paigie4life said...
May 8, 2010 at 9:32 am
That was really well written! I love the humor. I didn't see the connection until you started attacking yourself about turning in the paper late. Good Job, KEEP WRITING!
 
NeverJuliet replied...
May 21, 2010 at 6:21 pm
Thank you! I've always been a little awkward and vague in my personal narratives But I was feeling confidant about this one. It's always nice to get appreciation.
 
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