ONE OF MY TEACHERS
By JIM NICHOLS
I have frequently asked my students, “Who has been an important person in your life?” There are predictable responses such as parents and grandparents, but often many students will identify a specific teacher in their past. Asked to expand, they will usually describe a classroom teacher who was just the right person at the right time in their life. They will speak of challenge, encouragement, understanding, and compassion.
My response would be similar, but there have also been some others who have taught me well, although not in a classroom.
The address was 5218 Olive in Kansas City. I lived in that house for the first few years of my life. Later, as an adult when we visited the city, I would sometimes drive back by that house. The tree my sister and I planted in the back yard now towered over the house and the handrail my father had installed on the steep steps was gone. I was shocked a few years ago when the house appeared clearly abandoned. With boards on the windows, there was an official notice on the door that read, “CONDEMNED.” Even more disturbing to me was my most recent visit when I found the house gone. Vanished to a bulldozer, I suspect. I looked for the address and could not find it. Houses on either side were there, but there was only grass and weeds in the space of 5218.
Across the street and down one house lived one of my teachers, Tommy. I was only six or seven years old at that time and he was perhaps a year or two older. Tommy was the first physically disabled person I had known. In the language of the early 1950s, he was “deaf and dumb.” My parents carefully explained to me that “dumb” in this context meant that he was unable to speak. That was a word lesson for me.
Tommy was my best friend and playmate during those years. He taught me some ingenious and fun ways of running, hiding, and being creative. He attended a special school that I did not understand, but, when the school day was over and we both came home, we were together. His parents bought a new 1951 Pontiac that had a metal hood ornament in the shape of an Indian head; it looked like an exciting car. Furthermore, that car had something called “Powerglide,” one of the first automatic transmissions. Being able to drive a car without using the gearshift knob was amazing to me.
They also had a television set, something that our family did not have. At 4:30 every day, Howdy Doody came on. Unlike me, he did not seem to pay attention to a watch. This meant that every day at the appropriate time I would get near him and clap my hands. He seemed to be able to hear that. Then I would get right in front of him and say slowly but loudly “HOWDY DOODY.” He would jump up and we would run to his house and television set to watch not only Howdy, but also Buffalo Bob, Chief Thunderthud, Clarabell the Clown, Mr. Bluster, Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, and other wonderful characters.
Tommy also only had one eye. If I ever heard why he had these disabilities, I either did not understand or did not care. My parents explained to me that he had a glass eye; it appeared that he had two eyes, but one did not move and certainly did not look like his good eye. I was never brave enough to ask him to take out his artificial eye, even if it were possible. Although I was only six or seven, I sensed that this vision problem was a significant disability to him, probably more than his inability to hear or speak.
For reasons I cannot explain, I have always liked to throw things. The number of rock and dirt clod fights I got into is high. The best place for such fights was in a house under construction; there, the dirt was unsettled and there were boards to climb around on and hide behind.
In the winter, the best things to throw were, of course, snowballs.
The snow one day was perfect. Tommy and I were engaged in a spirited fight with several other boys. In such snowball fights, there are not teams; you just throw at anyone you can.
Throwing a snowball is an inexact process; one cannot really aim. You just make a ball and throw it. I threw one at Tommy and he moved in just such a way that it hit him in his good eye. He immediately screamed and burst into tears. I was so shocked at my action that I could not move. What I remember best, however, is how he looked at me as he began to regain his composure and (thankfully) the sight in his good eye. His face showed great disappointment and disbelief that I, his best friend who clearly knew of his physical deficiencies, would target his one good eye.
I spent many weeks explaining to him the accidental nature of that throw and we went on to have many happy times together. The fact that I can remember it so clearly, however, shows me my first deep experience with remorse. It is not only classroom teachers who can instruct us about challenge, encouragement, understanding, and compassion; it can be best friends that we wound.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.