The other day, I watched one of our teachers do something simple, yet, so very extraordinary. She comforted a child who was hurt. Watching a child's tears turn from fear to gratitude because of the actions of a caring adult brought me back to my own youth, when my destiny was shaped by one who simply acted kindly and attentive. At a time of great turmoil in my life, he accepted me not only for the person I was, but for whom I could, and ultimately would become. He was a man not larger than life, nor remarkable in any sense other than possessing a propensity for empathy and understanding.
His name was Mr. Gillis. We called him, "Mr. G." He was my science teacher, freshman year of high school.
When I studied to become a teacher, Mr. Gillis was my inspiration. I could only wonder and hope that I might someday be the Mr. G in the lives and hearts of my students, the way I was touched by him. As fate would have it, from the beginning of my career my students had a difficult time pronouncing my name...
So, they called me, "Mr. G!"
One day during my teaching career, three thousand miles and twenty years removed from my freshman science class, while on an outing with my students to Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, I was visited by the spirit of my Mr. G.
At one point, surrounded by four of my students, we climbed down the slippery precipice and ventured through the cave-like formations of an earth scarred by millions of years of seismic disturbance. Hands clasped for our protection, I sensed at that moment I was to them what he had been to me. I also began to feel certain that twenty years henceforth, they would pass the spirit of Mr. G. on to someone for whom they cared.
We took a moment to rest our weary legs. We lay down on the rocks and took in the sun. The kids laughed and giggled innocently, marveled at the geographic formations, talked about the latest music, fashion, teen romances and vacation plans. As they dreamt about life as a child, I closed my eyes and remembered the man through whom I had found my childhood salvation.
I drifted to days gone by and to the comfort of his classroom which had sheltered me from hostile environs. When all other adults neglected the awkward stages of my youth, his was a sympathetic shoulder on which to lean.
The image of his round and gentle face, his handle bar mustache, flannel shirt and rolled-up sleeves made him come alive in my mind. He stood at the front of the class, adjusting the radio to our favorite station, as we eagerly engaged in our science lab. Among partners of our choosing, we experienced the trial, error and meaningful exploration from which we would most certainly learn.
Transfixed upon the gift I had been given, I also recalled the difficult memory of the day I learned of his passing – taken in a car accident far too early during my sophomore year in college. On the rock with my students, I pondered deeply, the meaning of life, and the realization that the only chance we ever have of achieving immortality is through the legacy we leave behind for others.
I opened my eyes.
I saw the radiant face of my student, Amy. She had balanced herself precariously on a boulder. Her arms were folded, and she braced herself, ready to fall backwards with nothing beneath her but solid rock to break her fall.
“Mr. G.,” she said, “Come catch me. Let’s do a trust fall. I love doing trust falls with you, because I know you would never drop me.”
With that, the smile on her face, the sun shining down, and the wind in her hair, I truly understood the legacy and the immortality of Mr. G. He had been traveling among the rocks with us all day long.
And as Amy began her descent, there we stood, Mr. Gillis and I - arms linked tightly, so that together we would make sure to catch her.
Since that glorious day in Agua Dulce, I have never once taken for granted, the indelible mark a teacher leaves upon a student.