When I was in sixth grade, I had a Social Studies teacher named Ron Brown. He was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had.
He was that rare and effective combination of highly engaging educator, firm and fair disciplinarian, and accessible, genuinely caring friend. I, and I’m sure most of my classmates, adored him.
I love Social Studies and yet, I barely remember anything my other Social Studies teachers taught. But his curriculum still sticks with me. We studied the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs; the Eskimos (as they were still being called); the ancient Greeks; we studied culture as a concept; we studied geography and Latin America. I remember memorizing the 21 things every culture needs. The list included “celebration” which struck me then (as evidenced by my remembering) and still.
I remember we had to invent a country, complete with a poster-sized map, specifically to include all the geography terms we’d learned, and a written report on the customs of the culture living there. Mine was Candy Island (original, huh?) in the shape of a Hershey’s kiss, with Cape something-or-other at the curly top. The inhabitants were called the Tarasites, after my dog, Tara (because nothing matters much more to an 11 year-old than her dog) (and I apparently didn’t know what a parasite was or, if I did, didn’t notice the similarity).
As a final project, we had to research a Latin American country and produce both an oral and written report. This was a BIG deal. We were supposed to cull not only the encyclopedia (which I, now, barely remember how to spell much less use) but also newspapers and magazines for current news. We had to research all different aspects of the country we’d chosen — economics, culture, geography, arts. A BIG deal.
I chose Columbia. But I never finished my report. I don’t remember if I got sick toward the end of that year or what, but I was behind in my work and I never got it finished. Mr. Brown gave me several extensions, and then invited me to come see him at school a few days after the term ended.
I remember meeting him in the principals office. Why there, I don’t remember. The principal wasn’t there. It was about a week after school ended, and I sensed that if I used that week to complete my report, he’d accept it. But I couldn’t get it together. That time in my life was very challenging. I was depressed a lot, sick a lot, just sort of floating. Mr. Brown was very supportive. Since I didn’t have anything to show him, he offered to take my grade in the class and drop it by one. I was so relieved. I got a B that semester.
He taught as part of a team. There were three teachers, he and two women who taught English and Math. And he was always joking with our math teacher that men were the superior sex. He would sometimes send a student to interrupt her class with a note bearing his latest evidence, or he’d pop in himself to make the point. Their playful argument lasted all year, and it was thrilling, as a student, to watch because it was funny and edgy and grown up, and we were being allowed to witness and even participate. In fact, I remember a lot of the girls, myself included, getting into it with him, arguing in our defense. But boy, if you took it out of the playful… Watch out.
I remember a boy who once spoke disrespectfully to our math teacher in front of Mr. Brown, and Mr. Brown blasted him. He said he liked to joke with Ms. Morehead but we shouldn’t misunderstand. She was an intelligent, capable, outstanding woman and he had the utmost respect for her. “Don’t ever speak like that to a woman, and certainly not your teacher.” It was so powerful, especially at that time, in the 70s. To hear a male teacher come out so strong for a female colleague, and women in general, was amazing, and really made an impression on 11 year-old me.
The 6th grade team gave out awards called “Sunshine Telegrams” to deserving students. Over the course of the year, everyone got one, and they acknowledged students for particular excellence. The whole grade would gather once a week or so, and the teachers would announce the recipients and share why they were chosen for the honor that week. It was another big deal, waiting to hear who was being honored and having your “excellence” shared with the whole group. Well, when it came my turn, it was Mr. Brown who presented the award (even though Ms. Morehead was my homeroom teacher).
I was always pestering Mr. Brown to say hello to me. If I saw him anywhere on campus, I’d say, “Hello, Mr. Brown!” And I’d expect him to say it back, no matter what else he was doing. Well, somehow, it became a game between us, trying to be the first one to say it.
I remember the day my classmates and I gathered for the Sunshine Telegrams and Mr. Brown started out by saying that this telegram had a private joke in it and that everyone else should just ignore it. Then he went on to say, “For excellence in Social Studies and Math… HELLO, Lyena.”
I was shocked he’d mentioned our joke in front of everyone, but it also made me feel really special. And, I think, that is what made him so special. At one time or another, he made all of us feel special.
But as much as I adored him as a sixth grader, it was his role in my life two years later that really sealed his place in my heart.
By eighth grade, the problems I’d been having coping with life had only gotten worse. My older sisters had moved away by then, and the pressures of puberty were pushing me past what I could handle. I needed somewhere safe to turn, someone I could talk to, who could help me sort out the tangle of emotions balled up inside me. I turned to Ron Brown.
At the morning break or during lunch, on particularly hard days, I’d wander up to his classroom and, if he was there, he’d let me hang out with him while he did whatever he was doing. I can’t remember a single time when he turned me away. He’d ask me what was up and I’d spill it — my fears or my confusion about something, my worries, my pain. And he’d listen to me. He’d give me advice and reassure me. God, so much reassurance. And then he’d give me a hug and I’d go back to the day, my edges just a little smoother, my seams a bit reinforced. Even seeing him in passing somewhere on campus had a calming effect on me. Somehow his love and care reminded me that I was OK, that things were going to be all right. He was my mirror, a mirror I could trust. And he never failed to remind me how special, smart, capable and valuable I was. I don’t know if he was aware of the impact he was having but, really, he kind of saved me.
Even when I was an adult, he kind of saved me.
In my late 20s, I hit a very scary emotional wall. I started having panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. It started quite suddenly and I didn’t know what was happening. Then, one night, I had a dream. I was in a beautiful room, decorated with long, flowing curtains and big, overstuffed pillows. Mr. Brown was there and I asked him what was going on. He said, “You don’t remember, do you?” I just looked at him, sort of dumbstruck. And he said, “You don’t remember.” It was so loving and gentle. When I woke up, I realized that there was something in my past I wasn’t remembering, something gnawing at me, causing the anxiety, and my subconscious had conjured the safest messenger it could think of to say it’s time to take a look.
That dream led me into therapy where I discovered what I hadn’t been remembering and the healing began. Everything I’ve done in life since then has been built on that healing, so it’s no small thing what my inner Mr. Brown did. And it wouldn’t have happened if the outer Mr. Brown hadn’t been who he was.
He died much too young of a heart attack.
My friend, Charlie, whom I hadn’t seen in years, came to my door a couple of days before the memorial to break the news. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do.
When students, current and former, gathered with faculty, staff and parents on the playground of our school to remember him, I couldn’t sit still. People offered their stories and I paced the back of the crowd, unable to manage in any other way the grief that coursed through me. The tone of the memorial was celebratory, but it couldn’t unseat the devastation I felt.
For many years after that, while I, myself, was teaching, I invoked his spirit. And every year now, when I build our Beloved Dead altar in honor of Day of the Dead, I include a photo of Mr. Brown. I can only hope that when my son is older, he might have a teacher like Mr. Brown, so talented, so truly devoted to his students. I will never forget him, and I will always be deeply grateful to have been his student and he, my friend.