The incident came out of the blue – for both sides.
For a number of years, I have been putting together slideshows of family history – ancestor and descendant biographies, military experiences, sports participation across the generations … .
The one in question for this piece is a three-year history of my experience as a teacher at the Hayden School for Boys in Dorchester, a residential school for emotionally disturbed teenaged wards of the state.
The school offered classes in English, math, social studies, African studies, industrial arts and science/physical education. The last position was mine, and though I had a classroom, I eventually developed a daily field trip program that included skiing in the winter, golf in the fall, canoeing in the spring and a myriad of visits to museums, businesses and assorted other destinations around Greater Boston.
The boys loved the program. I loved the experience. It was here that I discovered that, “Teacher is who I am.” However, with funding through Morgan Memorial, the school was in yearly financial crisis, requiring us to actively keep up our “head count” to assure state reimbursement.
So eventually, with the impending arrival of a first child, I moved on to a social studies position at Masconomet Regional High School. The Hayden social studies teacher, in turn, a large, robust African-American man with a modest Afro and goatee, who on occasion had joined us on field trips, moved on to Cambridge Rindge and Latin. We would see each other in ensuing years at the state teachers convention in Boston.
Then, I learned that he had been paralyzed in a fall from a ladder while painting his house. Here’s where the slideshows come in. I kept thinking that I should get a copy of the Hayden history to him. He of all people would enjoy the story line. But the years kept passing by, and I didn’t follow up.
Finally, this June, I did. A search of the internet for contact information, however, brought me instead to his obituary from the previous year. I was stunned. I had missed what would have been a meaningful opportunity to share some memories.
In an attempt to make something out of the failure, I found and called the number for his widow, reached an answering machine and left a message. “I’d appreciate someone doing this for me,” I thought. No call came back.
But a daughter was also listed in the obituary, and I found her number on the internet as well and left a message. This time, the call was returned in short order.
“This is Stuart Deane. I used to teach with your father at the Hayden School and see him later at the annual teachers convention. I’ve been meaning to share a slideshow of Hayden with him for a long time, but now I see I’m too late.”
“Yes, Dad was paralyzed from the waist down,” she replied. “For the last couple of years, the bedsores just wouldn’t heal. He just wore down. It was time.”
“Listen,” I continued, “I have some photos I’d like to send you – your father in a canoe, with his class, in a giant teacup at a Canobie Lake Park year-end outing, wearing a dashiki and posing with the school cook.”
She gave me her email address.
“Thank you so much for sharing these with us,” she emailed back later that afternoon. “All this is funny because I had just left a meeting and was thinking about my dad today.”
“Your father was a great teacher,” I wrote back. “He was firm but with a big heart and a hearty laugh.”
The sequence of events got me to thinking about my own father.
Over the years, I have gleaned information about him from, among others, an old Springfield soccer teammate, aged 100, from the daughter of a U.S. Navy officer who served on the same remote Pacific island at the same time as my father during WWII and from the last living attendee at my parents’ wedding in 1942, also aged 100.
We seek knowledge and meaning in our lives. Anecdotes from the past are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, helping to fill out a more complete picture and enriching our heritage.
Of course, we don’t know what we’re unaware of, so the unexpected arrival of a photograph or an anecdote, however small, comes as a pleasant surprise.
To trigger and enhance a memory.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.