Male role models were in short supply around my house and what’s been detailed so far in this blog sums up the vacancy…but I was always looking.
I used to study men that I admired and imagine what sort of upbringing brought them to the point where someone like me looked up to them. Nothing about the paternal guidance of my childhood was really very valuable at all, other than as a cautionary tale. I hadn’t gotten a glimpse of what men could aspire to, only what they were capable of failing at and, frankly, it was depressing and made me feel stranded on an island.
Now, occasionally, teachers can have a profound effect on their students. Especially those students who are blessed with a teacher who is insightful and interested enough to look further than the blackboard at the little malleable mutts in their charge. That’s why I lucked out when I got to the 5th grade.
This time it wasn’t a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs’, it was a man, and a young man at that; a teaching certificate newbie by the name of Mr. Castle. If I’m accurate in my recollection this was his first assignment and while he may have been wondering ‘where am I?’, I was wondering ‘where have you been?’ At that point in time, men were basketball coaches or scout leaders but very rarely grade school teachers. And, yet, there he was, a male role model beyond my 10 year old comprehension.
Between math and spelling he would casually reveal little anecdotes about his personal life; his Polish heritage and, in particular, his very ‘old world’ Polish mother. He told stories of her young life growing up and general cultural tidbits we were totally unfamiliar with. I was enthralled with the stories, the fact that he was speaking personally to us and, most of all, I felt like he was speaking to me directly.
I began to conjure up reasons to speak to him in private out in the hallway about anything at all. I might have used the pretense of some academic question but when we got out in the hall it was usually about a story he might have told or telling him about something that happened to me or endless other excuses for conversation.
Once I found, in the back of a comic book or some magazine, an ad for a series of Polish dolls in traditional outfits and immediately thought of the tales of his mother. I cut the ad out, brought it to school and initiated another hallway meeting to announce my desire to get these dolls for his mother. It was another feeble attempt to connect but he also recognized the earnestness of my offer and, after thanking me for my thoughtfulness, immediately talked me out of spending the money I probably didn’t have.
I’m sure that I appeared somewhat desperate and needy but, to his credit, he always took time with me, looked me right in the eye and really listened to what I said. Here was an adult male not just politely half-listening to my nonsense but really considering me, maybe not for content but for conviction.
I truly didn’t know what this felt like.
Many years later, when I was a senior in high school and a sprinter for the track team, we went to the Central Michigan Relays and I ran into him there with another school. We talked briefly and he asked me how I was doing, said our goodbyes and that was pretty much the end of it. But I saw him in the stands when our half-mile relay heat came up. Now my coaches would have told you that I wasn’t the fastest guy on the team, and I wouldn’t have disagreed, but on that day, with Mr. Castle in the stands, I ran my ass off and, to the coaches pleasant shock, had the fastest split (timed portion of the relay team) of anyone.
I ran motivated and inspired.
I didn’t have a lot of that during my school years but Mr. Castle let me know, through simple interaction as a 5th grader, that men were capable of other approaches to life. Through his kindness and attention, I was able to recover another little lost piece of myself.