Teach your children well | Chuck’s World

By Chuck Sigars | Oct 23, 2013

My eyes linger on the headline for an extra second. My cursor hovers over the link, my fingers pause before turning the page, my mind races for a moment.

I want to walk away and not look back, but sometimes I look anyway.

This would be the obituary section of anything, whatever it happens to be called. In memoriam. Milestones. Passings. I’d like to imagine that a hotel chain’s internal newsletter has a section called “Checking Out,” although probably not.

There’s something seductive about death in these forms, lists of people who have passed, and it gets more interesting as we age.

For decades, a sudden death was an anomaly, a lightning strike. A car accident, an unknown heart condition, a family history, a complication of addiction or abuse: This is how people I knew passed on for many years.

It was striking and very sad, but remote and had nothing to do with me.

I’m now solidly in my 50s, though, the Cancer Years. These stories are also terribly sad but not so rare, and as much as we’re tempted to play zero-sum games with the numbers (i.e., we have a better chance of staying alive if someone else our age dies of disease), we all understand the end of our stories.

So while I try to avoid becoming an avid obituary reader, which is stereotypically the refuge of senior citizens, even as I splash around in the shallow end of the senior citizen pool, I have to acknowledge my interest.

We will all shuffle off sometime, and obituaries are usually the only chance most of us have to tell our stories, even if they’re told by someone else.

This is a shame, because there are some great stories out there. I recently read an obituary from 2011, searched for on a whim.

Dorann Thoreen, born in 1931, had passed away that summer. I’d heard this recently, sad news, but I was surprised and pleased to also hear her story.

She was a beauty queen, a stellar student, a passionate sports fan, a singer with Sweet Adelines, and a high school English teacher with a loyal band of former students who found her influence had a long life.

I am one of these students, which is why my heart gulped a bit when I heard the news, only relatively recently, that we’d lost her.

I received an email from her 11 years ago, some nice words about an essay I’d written that she’d been pointed to by another teacher, and I tried a little in my response to let her know how grateful I was for her teaching.

She was in her mid-40s back then, still a beauty, tall and animated with a warm, toothy smile.

Her sense of fun enlivened Shakespeare as well as the dusty literature that always seems to fill up a high school English class curriculum, but mostly it was her attention. She was an eager supporter of anything I did in high school, and I did a lot.

I wish I’d said more to her in that email, but of course I was only 44. I still sort of believed people lived forever.

I was led to search for Mrs. Thoreen’s final story by more sad news, the announcement that another former teacher had died suddenly of a heart attack.

This was Mr. Mungo, who taught civics, specifically a class called Free Enterprise that the state had decided was mandatory for all graduating seniors.

It was a widescreen look at capitalism, from Adam Smith to the then-present stagnation days of the 1970s, an overview on how our economic system was supposed to work.

Mr. Mungo has crossed my mind many times over the years, as have his lessons.

We were always gently dissuaded from making foolish generalizations (e.g., all politicians are corrupt) and instead pointed toward our responsibilities in a representative democracy, and I’ve often wondered how Mr. Mungo viewed our current world of political tribalism and hostage taking.

We weren’t particularly close, but he was also one of those teachers who took an obvious interest in his students’ lives and futures. We had several conversations about my plans during that senior year, and his ideas were good and his interest authentic.

“I have absolutely faith in your future success,” he wrote in my yearbook. “A pleasure to be your friend.”

There it is. Your friend. That little sideways step that makes a student-teacher relationship sing a little. Concern, affection, interest. Friendship.

I’m sorry to hear of Paul Mungo’s passing, and more sorry that I never took the time to look him up, all these years later.

I have happier stories. My high school geometry teacher turned into my student government adviser and then just my friend, and remains so to this day.

And last January I wrote about Ms. Page, the fresh-out-of-college music teacher who encouraged me at an awkward age.

I mailed a copy of that column to a work address I found online, and Sue Ellen Page and I have exchanged our stories now. It’s been a pleasure to meet her again.

These men and women I think of now, these pivotal influences on my life, are not alone. Of course.

Every day, teachers like Ms. Page, Mr. Mungo, and Mrs. Thoreen befriend students, look after them, teach them but also counsel, advise and listen. You can always find great teachers who change lives.

But they have to be great.

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