The Lessons We Keep




I met Mr. Hopkins in my senior year of high school. He was my english teacher. He worked in a small town, lived a big life, and taught me how to do the same.

I attended a small high school in the suburbs of south shore Massachusetts. I remember reading a student record of mine that gave statistics at the top of the page, in humble typewriter print, indicating my academic ranking within a graduating class of 149 students. In college, when friends from Texas told me they attended schools with multiple thousands of students (and theirs being one of several equally-sized schools in their district), they may as well have told me that they graduated from Disney World.
Growing up in a small town without anyone from the outside telling you its a small town can weird-en and romanticize your perception of what a big town is like. I thought living in a city must be exactly like living on the set of Sesame Street; every street corner filled with colorful characters who are ready to drop whatever they are doing and burst into song, teach a math or grammar lesson, or go on a scavenger hunt for items that begin with the letter “M”. I wanted to move to Boston (conveniently close to where we already lived) or Tokyo (inconveniently on the other side of the world but hopefully just as whimsical as all the anime cartoons I used to watch made it seem). I wanted to revel in big-town, city magic on a daily basis. Seeing that I was oblivious to the logistical and financial complexities of such a feat, my parents tried to reason with me.
Needless to say, my family did not uproot itself from the familiarity of careers, neighbors, and ways of living to be transplanted into the urban unknown just so I could live on Sesame Street. I was forlorn. When my brother moved to Boston for college, it was as though a former inmate were walking into the horizon as a free man while I watched from behind the bars of my cell window. I resigned to what felt like a life-time of small town labor, riding the same old bus down the same old streets to the same old schools I had known, and where I had been known for so long. As I grew older, I would acquire a yearning to go where I had not yet been, meet people who did not yet know me, and to let the prologue to my adulthood be written on a fresh page, a full page-turn away from the chapters of childhood, before a brand new audience.
Don’t get me wrong, my hometown was a great place to grow up. It was a loving, supportive community and I love going back there to visit. But the leaf of many a teenage soul often feels periods of resentment for the stabilizing stem that keeps it from flying away in the tantalizing winds of change. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when one, long, eternal year stood between me and my freedom, that a seed would be planted that had the power to enliven whatever landscape I found myself treading in the future, big or small.

Mr. Hopkins initially strikes the observer as an unassuming, scholarly gentleman. His bespectacled, bright-eyed countenance, complete with a button-down shirt and the occasional bow-tie betray the comedically styled, zestfully proclaimed, dramatized lessons that often characterized his classes.

“I would give my right-arm to write a line like that!” he blurted to the class after analyzing a passage from a poem written in olde-english form about a rather uneventful winter sled ride through the woods. He stood wide-eyed with his right arm turned upright, fist clenched, and left-index finger quiveringly pointing to his elbow joint, as if eagerly showing a prepping surgeon the generous length of arm he was willing to have amputated in exchange for the poetic finesse in reference.

His small teacher’s podium was often quite inadequate to contain him. He gripped its sides, reeling his tall upper-frame around to look every single one of us directly in the eyes when making a philosophical point, paced to and fro well beyond its borders, arms flailing in excited exclamations over rich texts, and slapped its weary surface when bursting into laughter over a veiled, scholarly joke from a reading that sailed over the heads of his students.

Although Mr. Hopkins could put on quite a show by himself, it was impossible to remain an observer for long. This man had a way of galvanizing his students with irresistible opportunities to take leaps of faith and face one’s demons. Said faith-leaping assumed many forms: class-readings in which the reader was required to use an accent, personal poetry delivered standing, not sitting, behind the ragged podium in front of everyone (tears were shed at times), and being graded on our ability to not only recite Hamlet’s soliloquy from memory but to dramatically portray it with whatever acting ability we could muster. Ordinary classroom life became extraordinary.

If those examples leave you unconvinced, consider the context: a roomful of teenagers who are trying to play it cool in front of each other all the time doing things that could shatter that self-projection into billions of pieces in a single instant. He was a master of chiseling holes through the walls that so many teenagers use to conceal their authentic selves and inviting them to come out of hiding. Often in the moment, I couldn’t stand the intrusion. I was a quiet, timid kid in high school. Although I am naturally introverted, my timidity was a mask I learned to wear in my early days in order to stay out of trouble with teachers for whom I had a reverent yet irrational fear. Later in life the timidity morphed into neutral, observational silence. I thought it made me seem like the smart, thoughtful, “mysterious” type of guy that you either wanted to be buddies with or wanted to leave alone because he might know kung fu.

Mr. Hopkins confused my internal programming like a computer glitch, making me uncomfortably aware of just how suffocating that mask was. No longer would I be able to get by in class by playing hide-and-don’t-seek. On certain days, an otherwise routine class activity would turn into the opportunity to stand out, be unique, and lift the veil that shrouded our authentic selves. But sometimes I just wanted to stay in my seat, take notes, curl into a ball behind my walls, and tighten the straps on my mask, thank you very much.

One day I cinched those straps so tight that they burst.

It was mid-winter and I had a busy day ahead of me. I was a member of the school band and had an off-site audition later that day for a music festival. I would be dismissed early from English class. That morning I ran down the hall to Mr. Hopkins room, my snare drum strapped to my back and the tapping of my black dress shoes echoing down the hallways lined with navy blue lockers. I came into the room as my classmates were still settling into their desks and pulled Mr. Hopkins aside. He looked down at me unflinchingly, as he always did, with a gaze that seemed to pierce through veneer, mortar, and brick. I dared to make eye-contact every few words as I mumbled:

“I have an audition today…I’ll have to leave early…at about 10:45.”

Immediately his hand thumped on my shoulder and he spoke in the determined, hurried tones of one who was about to remove his balancing hands from a child learning to ride a bike:

“Ok, now here’s what I’ll want you to do: I want you to get up in a huff. I want you to get mad, tell me that you can’t take it anymore, and then storm out of the room.”

Somewhere in the depths of my torso someone had lit a fire and was pouring gasoline in ever-widening circles around it. Right before the smoke came billowing out of every orifice on my mortified face, I clamped down the mask, gave a crooked smile, and chuckled “Heh! OK.”

With a final nod and clap on the back he dismissed me to my seat.

Although I only had 30-minutes until my dismissal, the fabric of time itself must have been in the wash because those minutes stretched, pulled, lingered, and faded into hours. The clock pounded out every one of the 1,800 second-hand ticks like a canon in slow-motion, heralding the coming of my fight-or-flight performance, inviting every one of my inner critics to take a front-row seat.

The time-warp ended at 10:44. All senses came piercing into my consciousness like shards of glass.
A multitude of voices were muttering frantically in each ear as they flew through cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments, and weighed the scales of my choices.

Should I do it or not? Will I overdo it and offend him? Will people think I’m cool? What am I supposed to do after I storm out? Do I come back and tell everyone its a joke? I sort of want to do this but I’m not used to being the kind of guy that does this sort of thing. Maybe I can just let it slide and leave. WHAT DO I DO?!

My eyeballs bounced back and forth in their sockets as the voices screamed for my attention. They were yelling over each other.

When a space-time anomaly leaves you with only one minute to diffuse a bomb strapped to your socially protective shell, you might end up snipping both wires at once in your haste to choose only one.

It was 10:45.

“MR. HOPKINS!”

It stumbled out of my mouth like an unexpected belch.

The buzz of the classroom screeched to a halt and he, hunched in conversation with a classmate, turned to me with the wide-eyes of an actor awaiting his cue. My monotone drone was discordantly accompanied by my nervous bursts of volume and meek quavers of uncertainty:

“I…HAVE TO…go”

He didn’t move. I was running late now for the audition. I had to finish it. The rest of my script drifted cautiously into the air like a balloon fizzing out of helium:

“I can’t take it anymore Mr. Hopkins”

Snip. 

Boom.

A shrill and questioning chuckle darted through the class. He breathed a heavy sigh, his shoulders falling, then rising as he lifted his weary head. Masterfully working the whole charade into part of an act that accommodated my faltered offering and kept the show going, he played along. Tiredly proclaiming my status as an incorrigible and out-of-control student before the class, he dismissed me to the audition with a smile.

I will never know what would have happened had I gone for the act with all my might. But I am glad for what did happen: Before I knew it I was walking down the hallway, red-faced and out of breath. The heavy wooden door closed behind me. Internally, I pulled at the straps of my mask in anguish. I tied them in knots and with every step pulled them tighter and tighter. By the time I was out of the building and on the bus, the knot had burst from the strain. The mask hung in tatters. The bus pulled out of the driveway. A refreshing breeze billowed in through the now gaping hole in my brick wall. Through it, I stared back at the classroom window on the second story as it faded into the distance.

____________________

That was not the end. It wasn’t even the beginning. I had been given the chance to sink or swim before I was a student in Mr. Hopkins’ class. Sometimes I sank. Sometimes I swam. There were many more opportunities to come in that class and beyond as well where those results were repeated.

But the unique thing that Mr. Hopkins did for me is that he made those opportunities so exciting. He could present you with a challenge that seemed at once so frightening and yet so within your reach that you knew you would be cheating yourself if you didn’t go for it with all that you’ve got. He also made you know, beyond any doubt, that he was in your corner cheering you on as you made the ordinary hum-drum of life extraordinary and explored the limits of what you were capable of.

Whenever life seems to lose some color and I’m tempted to put my mask back on and fade into the background of routine, the lessons I’ve learned from people like Mr. Hopkins come back to haunt me.

Do something. Be you. Seize this ordinary moment and make it extraordinary.

What will happen if you don’t? Nothing.

What will happen if you do? There’s only one way to find out.

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