A great teacher passed away earlier this week. His wake is tonight and his memorial service is tomorrow. I won’t be able to attend either, sadly, for a variety of reason, but I was thinking about this man.
His name was Tom Lota, and he was the wrestling coach at the high school that I attended, East Bay High School. I never had him as a teacher, but I knew him because he was good friends with my drama teacher, who we all called Mom. Sometime after I graduated, they got married. To all of us who knew them, it was like a real love story, the kind of thing you’d read about in books.
I took drama all four years of high school, even won awards for it in my senior year. So I was very close to Mom. The year after I graduated, I went to work for Circle K, where the man she had been married to use to hang out and talk to the manager there. I never thought much of this man, always wondered how he had ever become Mom’s husband at all. I don’t know the details of all that, but they divorced and sometime later she married Tom. I had been out of school for a couple years, so I was out of touch, but I was very happy when I heard about this. I liked Tom Lota, and I thought Mom was probably pretty happy.
Years passed, you know how it is, and I eventually became a teacher myself. While I was substitute teaching, I got a gig at East Bay and made sure to drop in to say hi to Mom. She had no idea who I was when I walked in the door – I guess ten years on my part and 1500 students on her part can make someone a bit forgetful – but once I reminded her, she was happy to see me and we talked for a few minutes. Mom is one of the two or three most influential teachers I’ve ever had, and I let her know that. To be completely honest, I do not think I would be teaching today had I not taken drama those four years, and a big part of the reason that I am as compassionate as I am has everything to do with Mom.
I know that it was the same for Tom. As I said, Tom passed away this week after a battle with cancer. Because of Facebook, he and Mom were able to reestablish connections with many of their former students. My wife and I are two of those students. So when the announcement came that he had cancer, we knew about it right away. Someone – I’m not sure who, but I really appreciate what he did – created a special page to keep everyone up on the situation. We were all invited to the naming of that school’s gymnasium after Tom, and we heard stories about his chemotherapy, about his improving condition, about his weakening condition, about his hospice care, and then this week about his passing. Over the past few months as this has all been chronicled, many of Tom’s and Mom’s former students have had a chance to share memories, to wish them well, and to extend their condolences. But what it really boils down to is that we’ve all had a chance to tell them how much we love them and to say goodbye to Tom.
Not everyone gets that chance, to hear from people who love them about how wonderful they are, about what sort of impact they’ve had on their lives. So I am thankful that Tom got the opportunity to hear these things. I have heard that the outpouring of love and support was incredible.
At the same time, we do not always get a chance to tell people how much we appreciate them for all they have done for us. I think too many of us sit in that comfort zone of maybe-I’ll-thank-them-someday and then just never quite get around to it. And then someone passes away suddenly and the opportunity is lost.
I am feeling this quite severely because I am a teacher, but I had a chance to tell VanWagner, Goff, and Mom how much they meant to me. I did not get a chance to tell Giancarlo; he had retired by the time I returned to East Bay and perished before I thought of using the Internet to try to contact him. That one loss sits on me sometimes. He was a hero in his own regard, a very special man.
Anyhow, the whole purpose for this bit of writing is to ask you to do one thing: Thank a teacher. I don’t mean this in one of those vague Teacher Appreciation holiday type things. I mean that I want you to sit down and write or type a letter and to send it to that one (or two, or six) teacher whose influence you still feel quite strongly in your life, the one you can look back to and say “That teacher really made a difference in my life.”
Why bother, you may ask; will he or she remember me? That doesn’t matter. Remind them who you are, and tell them what they meant to you and how they’ve had a positive impact on you becoming who you are today. I have received a few emails over the years, and I cannot begin to tell you how good they made me feel. Teaching is a weird profession: we put ourselves out there every single day and expose ourselves to situations no other human being has to endure, and we all do this because WE LOVE TO TEACH. Say what you want about teachers, but no one does this for the paycheck, no one does this for the summers off (mandatory layoffs, my college professor called them), no one does this for the corporate sponsorships – ha ha – we do it to make a difference in the world. And sometimes, when this job seems bleak, having a letter or two written by a former student that reminds us how important we are is invaluable.
So out of respect for Tom, and out of love and appreciation for Mom, I am asking all of you to write that letter. I know that some of you are my former students, and I am not in any way asking you to write this letter to me – the fact that we are friends on Facebook means that I know that you care – but I know you have had other teachers who have touched your life and help you grow. Please let them know how much you value them. Do it now.