ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

TEACHING BY THE SWORD

I’m not sure what was most impressive about Mr. B on the first day of high school in 1970.  Perhaps it was the steely gaze he fixed upon the sophomores who straggled into his Speech 1 class that hot August morning.  Or it might have been the sharpness of his voice as he barked seating instructions to everyone who entered the room.  Or maybe it was the sword.

Yes, that’s right.  I said “sword.”  You know – long pointy thing, famous in song, story and video game?  Of course, Mr. B didn’t threaten anyone with it.  He just used it as a walking stick as he stalked the room, occasionally leaning on it or jauntily resting it on his shoulder.  But as long as he had that sword, he had our attention.

So, yeah – maybe it WAS the sword.  At least, at first.  But then he did some stuff that made us forget all about the blade in his hand.  Like calling roll.

I know, I know – it’s sort of hard to imagine anything particularly impressive about calling roll.  But Mr. B did it by calling roll on the first day of school from memory – in alphabetical order – as he prowled through the class trying to match names to faces.

“George Alley . . .” he said, scanning the freshly scrubbed (remember, this is 1970) faces in front of him.  “George Alley . . .  Then he stopped in front of a red-haired, freckle-faced teenager trying to avoid his gaze.  Mr. B nodded and smiled.  “George Alley – right?”

George looked at him suspiciously.  “How did you know?” he asked.

“I just know, Mr. Alley,” he said.  “Never forget that.  I know.”

By the time Mr. B got around to me, the magic was beginning to fade a little.  He’d missed a couple of names, and even though he got mine right, it wasn’t all that impressive.  I mean, the only students left were me, Bryan Young and Lynette Zabriskie, and he already knew Bryan.  And I mentioned that to Mr. B when he finished with a flourish.

“You think this is easy, Mr. Walker?” he asked.

I shrugged in that maddeningly nonchalant way that only a 15-year-old can shrug.  “I don’t think it would be that tough,” I said.

“Fine,” Mr. B said.  “Why don’t you give it a try?”

“OK,” I said confidently.  “That’s George Alley.”  That was easy.  I’d known George most of my life.  “That’s Wanda Bangerter.”  Another easy call.  I had noted her name because my Mom’s name was Wanda – and also because she was cute.  “That’s Kay Burningham.”  A good friend from junior high.  This was going to be easier than I thought.  A snap.  A piece of . . .

Suddenly it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea who was next.

“Mr. Walker?” Mr. B asked.  “Would you like some help?”

“No,” I said.  I looked around the room, where people were beginning to laugh.  “Well, OK – maybe just a little help.”

“Wrong, Mr. Walker,” Mr. B announced.  “You need a LOT of help.”  Everyone was laughing – especially Wanda.  But then Mr. B looked directly into my eyes, and I thought I could see a glimmer of compassion on his face.  “But I’m pretty sure I can help you.”

And he did – more than I could possibly describe here.  For the next three years Mr. B was my mentor, my critic, my counselor, my big brother and my friend.  He was a teacher in every sense of the word, and my life continues to reverberate with his influence to this day.

I’ve been thinking about Mr. B a lot lately as my youngest son, Jon, begins his high school career.  And I’m hoping that sometime during the next few years he’ll cross educational paths with a teacher who can reach into his soul the way Mr. B reached into mine.  They’re out there, you know.  Teachers who care enough to make a difference in the lives of their students.

With or without the sword.

# # #

— © Joseph Walker

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