Archive for July, 2011

Living on the Margins with Mr. Smith

July 6th, 2011

There’s a gaping hole on our block today. Steve Smith, known simply as “Mr. Smith” to everyone who attended Tilghman over the past 30 years, died of a rare form of hepatitis. It was bad enough when he retired from Tilghman two years ago and left a void, but now that he’s gone from our neighborhood and our world, that house on the corner is dark and melancholy.
And I am sad. I so regret that I did not spend more time with him. He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better neighbor to him. I got busy, like we all are, and he could be a bit intimidating, so I let that stop me at times from visiting him.
Mr. Smith moved onto our block about four years ago. We live on Clark Street in an area that is deemed “marginal” by banks and real estate companies. That word was actually used on the transactions when we signed our deed. Clark Street is marginal because it can go one of two ways. It’s on the periphery of good and bad. Two blocks to the south of us is a trailer court. Four blocks east is a housing project and commercial district. Two blocks west is the most desirable area in the city limits, but it is literally “on the other side of the tracks,” because the railroad separates us. And two blocks north sit two reputable and influential churches.
The houses on Clark Street are also marginal. All of them are older: some are gracefully aging, and some are decrepit. Some neighbors have been renovating, landscaping, and building on new additions. Some neighbors have neglected their homes to the point that small varmints share their attics and basements, and some have abandoned their homes altogether. The neighborhood is either on the verge of gentrification or delapidation. We live dangling between redemption and degeneration.
I thought it was most fitting that Mr. Smith moved into our “marginal” neighborhood. He was very marginal himself. I never could figure out which way he was going to go. He was always on the edge of being really good or really bad. Most parents were taken aback at first by Mr. Smith. One friend told me her husband had been so offended by Mr. Smith at the Back to School night, with his theatrics and flamboyance and jumping on his desk, that he almost didn’t let his daughter stay in the class. By the end of the year, the family loved him. And that was true of his students.
What other teacher would introduce Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to his students with a ghetto retelling of the story where Jesus drives up in a Pimpmobile to confront Satan? Maybe some students were offended, but I think it’s brilliant to use the vernacular of the listeners to convey a difficult concept or masterpiece. That was, after all, Jesus’ own method of teaching.
Mr. Smith’s histrionics compelled his students to pay attention to him, which was exactly what he wanted. He often used shock value to drive his point home or even to force his students to look more honestly at themselves. I think sometimes adults misinterpreted his banter with the students. When Mr. Smith retired, he started teaching part time at the community college. We got word about a year later that he’d lost that job because the administration thought he was racist. I told my teenage son. “What?!” he said with agitation. “No way. He’s not racist. He just hates on everybody equally.” But it wasn’t hate; it was just that he spread the insults equitably. It was his way of pushing the boundaries with the teens. He would insult students by calling them names (I won’t even print what he would say here), but he still conveyed his deep fondness for them. When one of my teenage friends went through a dark and terrible time and started wearing all black, Mr. Smith stopped her in the hall and said, “Darling, why don’t you just go ahead and slit your wrists and jump off the top of the school?” It actually made her laugh. And she pointed out that he was the only teacher who noticed and said anything.
Paradoxically (of course), he was voted Most Polite by his high school classmates. After hearing many stories about Mr. Smith, I was astonished, upon first meeting him, at his chivalry and solicitude. I was going to be substitute teaching for his English classes, so I came to talk to him. Rarely have I been treated so well by a man. But then, several weeks later when I couldn’t find the papers in his classroom that he had left for me, he came storming into the room in his big fluffy houseshoes and threw them on my desk. Light and dark. Chiaroscuro. Marginal.
Also paradoxical was his dress. Despite the theatrics and flamboyance, he was one of the most conservative dressers on campus. On his last day at Tilghman, the school declared “Mr. Smith Day” and the entire faculty came dressed in his daily uniform of khakis, blue oxford shirt, and red striped tie.
Each Christmas, I take my teen Bible study group caroling in the neighborhood. The most anticipated stop each year has been Mr. Smith’s house. The first year we knocked on the door, we could hear him cussing us out for disturbing him on a cold December night. But after he saw his students, he was a most gracious and appreciative audience, querying his former students on what they were now doing. Each year, one of these students would stay after the caroling and they would talk a long time.
It will be hard to go caroling this year and walk past that lifeless house. It’s conventional on Facebook for the kids to post “Rest in Peace” when someone dies. I’m not going to use that phrase for Mr. Smith, though. I’m not sure “peace” is the right word. He was too full of life. So I think I will just appropriate another popular motto: “Live, Laugh, Love, Mr. Smith.”

I’m sure there are some great stories of Mr. Smith out there.  Please post them here to share.