Several years ago, a former classmate, Tim Golden, found my book through the Internet, while searching for resources on his niece’s disease, Tay-Sachs. What I have loved most about my book is not the money, but the opportunity to connect and re-connect with readers, friends and strangers alike.
Tim and I decided to meet the next time I traveled to my hometown of Amherst. I made contact and we met one morning over coffee. From our discussion of diseases and parents and life, we sequed into a conversation about our fifth grade teacher, Mr. Redman.
Mr. Redman was quite the character, as we fondly recalled. And somehow he had garnered a classroom full of inquisitive, on the verge of hormonal changes, bright students. In that group, I count friends who eventually moved to Sweden, a writer, soldier, photographer, teacher, musician, COO, and mothers and fathers.
Tim’s recollection of Mr. Redman’s class was the same as mine. Our teacher was always pushing us, to read, to know more, to understand more. This was 1976. It was the bicentennial of our nation, and while our class focused on history, I know equally about North and South Dakota, as I do Boston or Gettysburg, including the recitation of the Gettysburg address.
I returned to Cincinnati later that weekend, rolling around the notion of writing Mr. Redman a letter, to let him know what impact he had on me, as a fifth-grader and now. My son was ten at the time, the same age I was when sequestered in the corner room of Mr. Redman’s class, overlooking the kickball field, always nervous if one of the other classes had commandeered the kickball field before us, to warm up. We were, if not unbeatable, at least legends in our own mind.
Within that time, I had remarried, published a book, and was trying to find time, space, energy and topics to write. So, I pulled out a comp notebook and began a letter to Mr. Redman. Later, I would type the letter on my computer, hit “save” and push it to the back of mind. Afterall, writing it was for me.
Fast forward five years, 2012. During the summer of my father’s illness and subsequent passing, someone had posted a picture of our fifth-grade class on Facebook. Facebook friends took turns identifying classmates, and I found it an amusing pastime to get me through the days of Dad’s illness.
The day following my father’s death, Susan Dickerson, another classmate who had been in close contact with Mr. Redmond, posed a question to each of us who had responded, asking what we were doing occupationally so she could pass the information along to Mr. Redman. I decided to no longer wait. Death has a way of propelling us back into life. I asked for Mr. Redman’s address, and sent off the letter.
Through a few more correspondences with Susan, I handed off my cell number to Mr. Redman.
Weeks later, I found myself leaving Kaitlyn at the College of Charleston. I had already progressed through my father’s funeral, the disposition of my parents’ belongings, a move for my mother, another daughter moving back to IU.
Kaitlyn and I said our goodbyes following lunch. She was focused and engaged. Exactly how I like my kids. There were no tears. I would wait for them to come later. I checked out of my hotel, bought a few Charleston goodies for my mother-in-law and took to the highway.
I was looking at twelve hours driving time, split up by a stay in Winston-Salem. Somewhere south of Columbia, my phone rang with a northern Ohio area code. It could have been anyone – the funeral home, the cemetery, the lawyer, the accountant, but I recognized the scratchy voice instantly.
It was Mr. Redman. He was speaking loudly, as if I could not hear him, but in reality, he was probably having difficulty hearing me. We began with the dance of “How old are you?” I was saddened and heartened to learn he was my father’s age.
We discussed mostly his life. This was about him now. He had ridden his bike across the U.S. for the Lung Association. He and his wife had made it to all but three states, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, but his missed only seeing New Orleans. Quickly, our Jeopardy map game, played out in his classroom nearly every day, came to mind. To memorize the states that border the Gulf of Mexico. “Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida.” All the little ditties made up to absorb Mr. Redman’s teaching.
Then, he segued to my letter. I heard a catch in his throat. “As a teacher, you never know”…his voice crackled…”you never know what kind of impact you are having…” and his voice trailed off.
“I wanted fifth-grade. I taught fourth grade for one year, and knew that they were not mature enough to be taught in the way I wanted to teach.” So he became the sought-after fifth-grade teacher. The renegade, as I was want to call him. With his safari hat, beard and mustache, hot or cold coffee in hand, it was not the “what he taught us” but manner in which he did so, that had the most profound impact. Learning was hard, learning was fun. You had to be imaginative when you are trying to learn.
He mentioned how he always tried to live his life the way he saw fit. “So, I‘m glad you noticed I was a renegade.”
We ended our conversation with my promise to visit. But only to come to the back door, as “this old man is hard of hearing and won’t hear you at the front door. You can see the portrait of my wife (who had died nine years prior), painted by one of the art teachers. And pictures from my bike rides…”
“Do you still have the satchel?” I asked, recalling him tooling around with the bag strapped over his shoulder, always wondering about my test grade contained inside.
“I’m sure it’s here somewhere…”
“Well, maybe you can get that out too.”
“Well, yes I will…”
Only Fate could have delivered that phone call to me, as I was re-evaluating the life I was returning to, one less kid at home, one kid almost driving, father gone, mother’s mind slipping away. An 1870’s house to complete reconstruction and writing. More writing.
The tears followed then, thinking about Kaitlyn, who wanted to become a teacher someday. How she will influence countless children. Of teachers certified or not in my life. My first teacher of my mother, teaching me to love books. My father teaching me to drive. And Mr. Redman, a teacher who, in that moment on the phone, quite possibly gave me more than he ever had in fifth-grade. He gave me the gift of himself.
The letter follows:
November 5, 2007
Dear Mr. Redman,
I had to look a little harder to find you, but now that I have, it was a great surprise to see you at my book-signing. I’m not too fond of those events, being somewhat shy and not quite the extrovert that most people assume.
I was struck by your condition and felt bad I hadn’t stayed in touch or kept up on all the happenings around Amherst. Unfortunately, the hallmark of a great education require we take our knowledge elsewhere, apply our passion to other areas in the world.
I had coffee with Tim Golden the next morning following the book-signing. Tim was always the artistic type, but had a lot of confidence in himself and others. He was on the Internet one day looking up Tay-Sachs disease, which had just stricken his niece. He came across a link to my website, bought my book and got in touch – another surprise. If life offered me anything, it served up a constant reminder life is bursting with surprises, but we have to put ourselves out there to find them. Tim has been in Air Force and now serves in the National Guard, he recently returned from a stint in Iraq, though not on the front line – thank god. What he remembered the most about you may be what we all remembered – kickball. He mentioned there was a possibility of him failing spelling tests because he was always thinking about the line up for the kickball games.
You became a favorite teacher for so many of us for varied reasons, but I was always intrigued by your renegade ways – the manner in which you dressed was not always in line with what we expected our teachers to look like, outback hat and all. You rode your bike to school and while I did too, none of us really thought it was cool for a teacher to do so. We just found it different. And we loved it. There was a spirit of individualism that you promoted within the classroom, by being an individual yourself. That beard you were always stroking while thinking, while the rest of us were looking for crumbs in it. That’s what fifth-graders did.
You were a potter, a lover of Van Gogh and taught us that sunflowers were not Van Gogh’s only work. There was the map game – I still can’t remember is Bismarck the capital of South or North Dakota, but I never wanted to spend time there anyhow!
Fifth-grade was a challenging year for me. Our family moved from a small home on Ridgeland Drive near Route 58 to the present family home on Lincoln Street and while that home afforded us the opportunity for independence and involvement in school, it was still a traumatic move away from our sledding hill at Golden Acres, the acres of woods we used to tramp through for blueberries, and the creek where we stuck our feet on hot days to cool down.
Other classmates may have a better memory of certain aspects in class, like Tim mentioning his argument with you over the Alamo and its roof – does it have one or doesn’t it? But what I mostly remember was a passion, a striving. As if the competition in the classroom was preparing us for the world outside, a little early, but keeping our minds sharp, not letting it wander to the neighbor’s desk or out the window – though it did occasionally. I can still picture the corner room, up on the second floor, seated at tables of maybe 5 or 6 desks. I liked sitting by the door, since I could line up early for lunch (look at me, I don’t look like I eat, but I can put it away, and did then too.)
My son now is about the age I was in your classroom. He has so many chances, so many more than we did, student council, runner’s club, flag football, golf. In those days, fifth grade was mostly about school and boys, the occasional band concert and the all-class camping trip.
Your classroom I remember was stuffed full, every inch of the wall covered with maps, Van Gogh, the chalkboard with the Jeopardy. Each morning, I walked into your class feeling the butterflies when I would see the Jeopardy game set up on the blackboard, or wondering what learning the day might bring.
But mostly, I recall a certain passion that has stuck with me, that I have carried through challenges thick and thin. I hope for days when you can stoke that fire, that there are others who felt the same as I did and this, I wanted you to know.
Annette Januzzi Wick