The Death of (More Than) a Teacher

By: Daniel Bergerson

Dear Dr. Miller,

Or now that I don’t feel weird saying it…

Dear Jake,

Some four years ago, you gave a speech to our entire high school. With your signature Kansas drawl and wry wit, you started by saying, “I want to talk about my personal experience at the risk of this seeming self-centered. I’m the topic that I guess I know the most about.” Then you proceeded to tell us the story of how your hometown, though home to more prairie dogs than people, sparked your lifelong love of learning.

Now that your long life full of love and learning has come to a close, Jake, I echo your preface. To reflect on your death, I want to talk about my personal experience. I’m no expert, but I know a thing or two about myself.

I was not your student, at least as far as any registrar was concerned. I did, however, sidle up to a lab table in the back of your tenth-grade biology class whenever my “real” science teacher was busy elsewhere. I remember laughing and learning and laughing some more, usually in that order. You were the type of teacher that kids who struggle with science appreciate.

As part of the research-based curriculum you developed, I made a short documentary about preimplantation genetic diagnosis— a procedure I am amazed to say I can still explain. With your guidance, I learned to understand the behavior of red-winged blackbirds and other cohabitants of our campus. I also came to know you as a chaperone on our school trip to Havana, where my marimba band studied Cuban rhythms and ecology for two weeks.

Looking back, you were not my closest teacher. I was probably not your favorite student, either. And that is okay. I had half-a-dozen other adults down the hall who I could talk with about anything, which is to say that I had the privilege of having so many great teachers that I could not befriend them all.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.18.10 PMNevertheless, when you died last week after 67 years of living and 37 years of teaching at Breck School, I lost a teacher. The community, however, lost so much more. Last Saturday’s memorial service, together with that speech about your hometown and our time in Cuba, helped me realize that. Thanks to these fleeting glimpses into your personal life, I can comprehend the meaning of your death —and, more importantly, your life— a little better.

Jake, I am grateful for these few spaces we had to share extracurricular stories because without them I never would have learned many things. I never would have known…

…that your parents are from a place “so desolate that even the jackrabbits need a map to get around.”

…that as a kid you peed on a particular bush every day to see if it would grow faster than the others. (It did!)

…that you first discovered defensive animal behavior by pedaling your tricycle smack into the middle of a big harvester ant den. (You said their bites “smarted” but that you were all the smarter for the science experiment, which was a pretty sophisticated one for a four-year-old.)

…that you have a brother named Jim, and that he would choke up reading your date of birth.

…that everyone back home called you Harold —not Jake— or that when your first professor at Emporia State University called “Jake” during roll call you didn’t even recognize your own name.

…that as an avid ornithologist you lured so many Canadian geese to the campus that the school had to hire a dog named Chelsea to chase them away.

…that you studied Spanish and French as an undergraduate, that you wrote what you refer to as “bad poetry” or that you ever did anything other than watch birds and teach kids, for that matter.

…that as a graduate student you made a trade with the Itasca State Park superintendent: a six-pack of beer for naming a lake after yourself. (Now I understand why your best friend is renaming the school pond “Lake Jake”. It’s because “Jake Lake” was taken long ago.)

…that as a young teacher you protested the school dress code by wearing the tackiest ties imaginable, that supporters began sending you theirs in solidarity or that you hung those insults to fashion up in your classroom among the taxidermied birds.

…that as the leader of a school trip you once practically carried a student up Mount Kilimanjaro so that everyone could get “the full experience.”

…that as a husband you charmed your wife’s family in Spain, telling jokes and cooking paella.

…that as a father you braided your daughter’s hair before school, made her fried-egg sandwiches for lunch, or encouraged her to pursue her interests even if they did not match yours.

…that as a cancer patient you were cared for by your grown daughter the same way you once cared for her.

…that your Spanish nephew remembers you with Neruda, reading, Por eso yo profeso / la claridad que nunca se detuvo / y aprendí de las aves / la sedienta esperanza, / la certidumbre y la verdad del vuelo.”

If it were not for the spaces that you, your loved ones, and our school created to share stories, I neither could have seen the glimmer of multitudes within your person nor absorbed some of your curious spirit.

There is much I will never know, of course. (Only a lucky few students who shared that cab ride with you in Cuba have heard the story of how you fell in love with your wife.) And that is okay, too. I am grateful that you found time to share some of yourself with your students, even while you were busy teaching us other stuff.*
Every teacher like you, Jake, deserves a thank-you like the one at the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus— communal, cathartic and in every way complete.

Plus, in your case, it’d be nice to see every critter —the prairie dogs, harvester ants, red-winged blackbirds, Canadian geese and that dog Chelsea— gather around you to pay their respects, like a science-teacher Snow White. But you have already departed, so from me you have only this letter of thanks.

Jake, thank you for caring. Thank you for getting to know your students. Thank you being open and letting us get to know you. Thank you for reminding me that teaching is not narrow.

Sincerely,
A Teacher Soon-To-Be

____________

*“Other stuff” includes but is not limited to: that our campus is a “54-acre classroom,” that our communities are only uninteresting “if you only look on the surface” and that our life is like an ecosystem: “richer with diversity.”

*******

danielDaniel Bergerson is a third-year undergraduate student in the Barnard Education Program at Columbia University. He is currently studying history, writing children’s stories, and traveling throughout Chile —all in preparation to teach high school social studies in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can read more at dandruffreport.wordpress.com.

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