5/29/08

Teach Me about Life

In my life there have been many teachers of many different subjects. I was talking to my mom a few weeks ago and I told her I wanted to visit Mr. Askins, my favorite high school teacher, when I visited her later this year. I could imagine the heroe's welcome as I walked through the front doors of the high school. I am sure that life there has been dismal and bland without me being there. There would be confetti, bands playing, dancers dancing...

"Robbi, Mr. Askins retired over ten years ago. I am not sure how you will track him down!" interrupted my imaginary fanfare. "What! Teachers don't ever leave the schools, they don't age, we don't age in their eyes - they wait for us to come back and tell them how great we are and how much they had to do with it!" was my initial response. The thought had never crossed my mind. I have aged - it's been over 20 years since I walked the halls of my old high school...o.k.! It's been over 25 years. That would make Mr. Askins....I suppose....rather aged.

I have spent a lot of time since talking to my Mom, a retired teacher herself, thinking about the reality of life. As a child, we look at our teachers as super-heroes. They can never fail. They can never grow old. They are placed in those schools to teach and teach forever and ever. It's their lifes mission to instill skills, knowledge and morals in us that will get us through our lives. A few stand out in my mind.

Mrs. Howard was my first grade teacher. She was psychic! She knew if Little Tommy Powers and I were ABOUT to begin one of our extreme giggling sessions and was very good at placing one or both of us in the hallway before we disrupted the entire class. She was a large woman, redheaded which could have attributed to her affection for me, and she was so full of love and warmth, a child could never get enough of her attention.

Mrs. Coble was my sixth grade teacher. It took two 18 hour bras to support her and after a few days, they qualified for disability. She wore these huge necklaces - owls, flowers, any kind of ornament - across her chest. Her black hair and charcoal eyes made her expression terrifying. Those not in her class cowered in her presence. Those in her class were her babies. Fortunately, for me, I was in her class and got the full Mrs. Coble treatment. I loved her demanding demeanor combined with her tearful response when someone showed up without their winter jacket because they didn't have one. She was the perfect balance. To this day, in my opinion, she was the perfect teacher. She died several years ago.

Fast forward to Mr. Askins. In the 11th grade I got my first class with Mr. Askins. He was my typing teacher. He was a large black man who could laugh so loud the walls would shake. Many were fearful of him, but I took great delight in tormenting him. For the first time in my life, a teacher's accent was worse than mine. As he would call out the letters, I would type "R-a R-a R -a" and he would say "I only called out one letter...R-a" when he reviewed my paper. I would say "oh...you meant R, the letter R, here I was typing R-a as fast as I could and that dash really took some getting used to!" He knew me, I knew him. I was the fastest typest in his class and he tested my speed daily. I never intended to sound disrespectful but the gauntlet was down. Ever day we found a reason to nit pik each other's accents as he pushed me to excel further with my typing skills, he KNEW my joking was based on my natural affection for him and he would put his head back and laugh. I did not disrespect this teacher, I loved him! He would usually respond to my accent with "Waaaaaat!" when I would say "Mr. Askins" (he said it sounded like Mister ASSSSKeeens" to him) It was a great battle we had challenging one anothers uniqueness.

My favorite was the number 4. FO FO FO FO FO FO FO was what I would type on days I was feeling a little rebellious - he KNEW I was going to and he would say - "The NUMBER 4 (FO)!" I would feign frustration and begin typing "The number fo" over and over again still beating out my classmates. He could call out to me "Robbi, why are you typing so much" and I would say "gee Mr. Askins, that's alot to type and I don't think I am spelling FO right!" He would walk over to see what it was this time, look at my paper and begin to chuckle "it begins with an "F" sort of like the one your parents will be seeing on your report card!" This would force my defeat. I would smile and say "oh, you meant the real number F O U R". He would bust into a laugh - "yes, I think you finally figured it out - I thought you might!"

The next year I took Typing II AND shorthand JUST SO I would get Mr. Askins again. Everyday, I would walk into class and say "Mrs. Askins do we really have to do shorthand today?" and he would laugh and respond with something like "well, I am sure when you get to the real world you can pick what you do with your days!" and off we would go with dictation. It was harder to torment him about his accent with shorthand so I decided to be more serious and just try to be the fasted one in the class. I was always competitive but only after I would try to divert the class plan from working.

I truly loved this man. He helped me write my first resume. He helped me write my first letter of thanks for an interview. He literally yelled congratulations over the phone when I called him and told him I got my first job. He always made me feel like the most successful student he ever had when in truth I was not. I wanted him to feel like the most successful teacher I ever had because in truth, to me, he was.

Fast forward back to my conversation with my Mom. How did time pass by so quickly that a school would lose a glorious teacher like Mr. Askins to age? I am so doubtful that he could possibly be replaced. In my life he can not. The last thing Mr. Askins was for me was a great witness. He prayed in class. He told us about his faith. On those days that I did manage to divert him, the stories he told were of faith, testimony, great adventures overcoming racism and life when rights were not so equal - those were stories! He challenged us morally and explained in great detail the rules of ethics to us. It wasn't a duty, it was a passion to him. He demonstrated contentment with his role in life. He was a teacher in a small town high school. He taught students who wondered how he could be happy with that. They wanted more. They wanted to see the world. They wanted to experience the world.

It's taken over 25 years for me to realize that Mr. Askins was experiencing the world. He was witnessing to the next generation - us. He was one of many people I knew who grew up being told they were not equal yet knowing they were. He was one of many people who never once expected me to compensate or apologize to him for the shortfalls of my forefathers. HE was a hero! Last but not least, he was a man who understood the value of teasing and ribbing one another without believing it to be personal or judgemental, just like I never believed for one minute his teasing me was personal. He taught me to laugh with one and all. He taught me humility. He's gone now - retired. We are here and now. He set the example. Now, I suppose, it's our turn to follow him and make sure the next generation sees the same in us that my generation saw in him. I still haven't perfected my accent and I get the occasional "what are you saying" from someone and I love it! It always reminds me of that glorious laugh Mr. Askins would share when we tested his patience. One of the most important things he ever taught me was to laugh and not take life to seriously. Sometimes it's our unique differences that bring on the occasion to appreciate one another. I am so glad Mr. Askins had that accent, it gave me so much opportunity to goad that laugh out of him. I can hear it now just like those days in my past.

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