Teach your children well l Chuck's World
Last updated 7/25/2018 at Noon
Forty-five summers ago, on the first day of my sophomore year in high school, I walked into my geometry class and got distracted immediately.
The teacher, whose name was Mr. Kemper, appeared to be alternately lecturing and teasing a young woman, who apparently was dropping his class. He thought this was a bad idea, and he wasn’t above using a little sarcasm to make his point.
I appreciated this, although I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to him, as this was a cute blonde girl in a red halter top and very short cut-off jeans. I was 15 years old. I don’t have to draw you a picture, although I probably could. This was a human being designed to attract my attention.
Richard Kemper understood this. He’d been teaching at the school since it opened a dozen years earlier, and he understood teenagers, how unsteady we were, how unsure and teetering on the margins of life. He knew we needed guidance, because that was his job.
He was the original teller of Dad jokes, hauling out the same dumb geometry puns every year. These sailed over a few heads, caused more than a couple of groans, and elicited some smiles from a few, which is what he was looking for. Dick Kemper seemed to believe that if he could make a kid laugh, he could teach him.
I laughed, and learned. He was my teacher for the next three years, and I would wish my high school experience on anyone. It was a rich and wonderful time, and Dick guided me through all of it. Nearly three years after I walked into his classroom for the first time, he stood at the foot of a stage erected on the football field, amused at the familiar site of anxious graduates, and he shook my hand. “I’m proud of you,” he said. He said it a bunch of times. He knew what he was doing.
If a new graduate were foolish enough to ask me for advice, this is what I’d tell them. I’d tell them to figure out who made a difference. I’d tell them to remember their teachers, the ones who shepherded them through this rocky, formative time, and to keep in touch. Good teachers have a way of continuing to teach, if you let them. They have to be good, though.
He wrote letters of recommendation for me, helped me pick out my college classes, paid me to wax his car on weekends and house-sit when he took his family to Disneyland. He gave me advice and set an example, and a friendship that seemed unusual and felt completely natural grew and strengthened and then, ultimately, just was. The teacher and the teenager became, at the end, just a couple of grandfathers sharing notes on joy and challenges, and mostly joy.
I don’t know how these things happen. We stayed in touch, we drifted away and then back, we never stopped, and it only occurred to me last week that it was the longest friendship of my life.
I saw him a couple of years ago, a spontaneous layover in Phoenix prompting me to rent a car and head out to Sun City. We had a nice lunch and a fun conversation, and as we left the restaurant he insisted we take a picture.
He was 80 years old, and still I see the same faces, the kid with ridiculously long hair and the wisecracking math teacher, now just a couple of older guys, hanging out in the parking lot, trying to figure out how to take one of those selfies the kids are all talking about.
He emailed me two weeks ago to let me know about the cancer. He’d been dealing with this for seven months, and it was time to say goodbye. It was awkward for this man, always appropriate and understanding that we all have the same journey, eventually.
I’ve written about him before, you know. I told him many times, in print and in person, that his presence in my life made a difference, perhaps the most difference. You really need to tell them.
His wife sent me a note last Thursday, Dick’s 83rd birthday, letting me know he’d passed away. It was a lovely gesture in a sea of grief, and comforting.
It’s not my intention to share personal pain. This is my life, not yours, and my grief is lessened, anyway, by the knowledge that he was at peace and ready, and that it was always going to happen. It always is.
I just thought you might be interested to know that such a thing is possible, that friendships are forged, sometimes, in unlikely fires. That teachers matter, and that some of them matter more. That there are stray moments that somehow get preserved in amber, because sometimes we need to pull them out of the box, and remember.
I remember the girl in the red halter top and short shorts. I texted her last week, to let her know Mr. Kemper had passed away. We ended up with a long friendship, too. You just never know.
He was a little guy, really, not intimidating at all, with simple values and a sense of humor about the whole thing, but he was a great big man, my friend Dick was. And I still wonder if Mr. Kemper is proud of me, after all these years, and I should.