Brother Norris was a fascinating man. I heard of his passing this week.
He spent thirty years teaching us English, then went on to retirement. It’s time for him to look down from heaven and make sure we’re not splitting our infinitives. I know he’s smiling to see that my writing’s become much more concise and that I still read great works of literature.
I enjoyed Brother Norris’ class.
I was disappointed when he retired–the opposite of the cheers you hear when those teachers who “need to retire” finally do. I felt he had another few good years in him.
He moved to Prince Edward Island, I think, selling his house up the street from my family to a family with a little kid who now has an “organic” veggie stand that I hope puts him through college.
Normally, high school kids aren’t excited when their teacher lives near them in case we don’t do our homework or we want to misbehave. I had three teachers in my neighborhood. It was a small town, the chicken to traffic light ratio being solidly in favor of the chickens. The teachers had to live somewhere.
Besides, most of us didn’t get in trouble. There was nothing for Brother Norris to tell our parents. He could mow his grass on weekends and wave in peace.
Brother Norris was deliberate when he taught. He wasn’t high energy like I am when I teach. I’m Keystone Cop to his Southern Gentleman–I hold audiences captive with humor and antics, he, with sophistication.
He taught us the lessons that are often skipped in the classroom in favor of content. Respect. Eloquence. Trust. The meaning of life.
One day we had a lesson about how to sign our names. He felt strongly about those types of things. “You need a proper signature,” he said taking time out of English class to show us how to form the flourish. His signature would have fit well on parchment in a museum.
“This way, we know it’s you. It cannot be forged. The signature,” he said, “is the sign of the man.” Signatures are in pen. They are bold. They have decoration. They are representations of the individual. Meek signature, meek individual. Our signatures should be bold and confident.
I imagined my signature on the bottom of a large check or an important historical document. These days, it’s on a ton of debt documents and some passes to the bathroom, but the lesson’s the same.
I am an individual. I am bold and confident. I am successful.
To be honest, I don’t remember a single piece of actual English we learned in that class. Was it Hemingway, Steinbeck? We did all the Shakespeare, Dickens, and SAT vocabulary a kid could want the year before, so it must have been something else. It’s the lessons, I’ve found, that make a class valuable. The content isn’t so important.
The lessons Brother Norris taught became part of my DNA, not my conscious memory–that’s a gift of a true teacher. Now I walk into my own class. I command it. I put on The Show.
I admit, “You won’t remember very much of what I say, and to be honest, it’s not that important…” What’s important isn’t what we learn–it’s how we learn to learn and use our motivation to learn more. Then we can conquer the universe.
I’ve been around long enough I can ask former students if that’s true. Turns out, it is. Not one of my former students cites a piece of social studies information or a fact about a founding father as being the defining moment of my class. It’s the bigger lessons I teach and the relationships we build that matter.
That’s what Brother Norris taught me to do. That’s the lesson I hope I pass on, so that some day, when it’s time for me to enter the Lord’s classroom, I can look down and see if my students are taking full advantage of the real lessons of life–the ones that bring happiness.
That’s what will make them successful, and continue the cycle of good things for countless generations.
[Photo: This is a snapshot from the front row, center of Brother Norris’ class. Brother Norris, always subdued, is on the left. On the blackboard–an offering of cake, and an ode to the last four days before graduation.]