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I was twelve years old. It was springtime and the school year was winding down. I remember the day very clearly, and the moment in the particular day I’ve got in mind. We were back from the afternoon recess and no one in the noisy classroom seemed to be in math mode. It was sunny and warm out, which made us even more ready for summer vacation to start. But here we all were in the last class of the day: math with Mr. Zech [rhymes with heck].

Looking back, I would categorize Mr. Zech as being gruff and blunt, although at the time, in my 6th grade vocabulary, I would have just said that he’s mean. I know better now (that most people are more complex than that), but the memory I’m sharing comes from my vantage point as a pre-teen. Mr. Zech being one thing in my mind – mean – is one of the main things that made this experience so poignant.

The class had already started when it happened. Because of our “spring fever” Mr. Zech needed to call the class to order with more volume in his “Settle down, people! Settle down, people!” than usual. That’s when the intercom beeped. Mr. Zech was on and off the receiver inside of five seconds, announcing to 25 boisterous sixth-grade students that he had to go to the office for a moment and to please not burn the school down in the time he was gone.

We didn’t burn the school down, but we didn’t remain quiet. We were stir crazy! Left to our own devices we laughed and chattered and threw things and… and then Mr. Zech was back just like that! Re-entering the classroom, he was pale and distracted, and he kept moving, gathering up his car keys and lunch sack and heading for the door again. He didn’t seem to care that we were out of control. Without looking at anyone, he made his announcement literally while rushing out the door: “My mother just died. I’ve got to go.”

As you might imagine, the remainder of the hour was quiet. We didn’t need a chaperone. We just sat there looking at each other… or not looking at each other.

There are epochal moments in a person’s life when they realize things that had never occurred to them before. This was one such moment for me.

Mr. Zech’s mom just died. Whoa, Mr. Zech had a mom.

Mr. Zech didn’t raise his voice at us like he usually does when we get loud. Whoa, there are things more important to him than controlling a bunch of kids.              

Mr. Zech displayed real, genuine human emotion before he rushed out of the room. Whoa, Mr. Zech is a real person.

Mr. Zech just left. Whoa, Mr. Zech has a life outside of here.

Seriously, those are the kinds of things that raced through my mind. Those thoughts – especially the ones that had to do with Mr. Zech being a real person and having a family and life of his own outside of being a sixth grade math teacher – were made even more real to me a few days later.

Enter into the story my sweet, thoughtful mother.

It was one morning before school, a day or two after Mr. Zech lost his mother. I was eating breakfast. My mom plopped a greeting card and pen in front me. It had flowers on the front of it with the words “In Your Time of Loss.”

She told me, “You need to sign this.”

I put up a weak protest: “Why?” I didn’t really know Mr. Zech. He wasn’t my primary teacher. I only had him for math. And the card had flowers on it. Boys don’t touch things with flowers on it.

Of course, I signed the card. I discreetly carried it with me to school and discreetly placed the card on Mr. Zech’s desk as soon as I got to school, then hurried off to my own classroom.

Mr. Zech wasn’t back for a few days, until after the funeral. I think a weekend had passed. At any rate, I had long forgotten about the signed bereavement card I left on his desk.

I’ll never forget the day he was back at school. The school day hadn’t yet started, but it was about to when Mr. Zech came to Mr. Rickmeyer’s classroom and asked to speak with me in the hall. Having forgotten about the card, I had certainly also long forgotten about the momentous realizations that had occurred to me less than a week before when Mr. Zech was given the terrible news about his mother. Naturally, I thought I was in trouble. (Yes, I was the kind of kid who got into more than my share of trouble. So, I thought I was safe in assuming I must have done something wrong and that mean Mr. Zech had come to confront me.)

When the door closed behind us and we were alone in the hall, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I want to thank you for the card. It really meant a lot to me. It was very thoughtful of you. Thank you.”

There was an awkward pause. My heart was racing. [First, I thought I was in trouble! Now I’m not in trouble! The relief — but what card is he talking about?? — Oh! The card my mom made me sign. Yesss!] I sheepishly looked at Mr. Zech, then at the floor and told him he was welcome.

Things changed for me after that experience. I’ve made many mistakes in the decades since and I’m certain I will make many more. But that simple act of consideration on the part of my mom made me more aware of the humanity of the people around me.

A card my mother told me to sign and give to a gruff, grieving teacher may have been the best gift my mom ever gave me.

People are real… people. They aren’t objects. Even those who don’t seem like their hearts can be broken: their hearts can be broken… and they most certainly have been. They have lives. They have families. They have secrets that make them smile and that make them cry. They – and when I say “they” I am talking about every human being on this planet – love others and want to be loved and accepted by others.

My mom had a severe stroke June 2009. She peacefully passed away some months later. It was one of my life’s greatest privileges to stand and share some thoughts with the many who gathered for her memorial service. The thing I chose to focus on was Mom’s consideration toward others and her thoughtfulness; specifically, her wonderful habit of expressing herself in writing. She sent sweet notes to friends, she sent cards to those who needed some uplift, and she always put her thanks in written form, sending it to the deserving party.

As I spoke of these things, heads were nodding in agreement. Mom’s kindness and selflessness had touched everyone she knew. She treated everyone like they were someone. And she was right. Everyone is.

So, before you choose to get angry the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, choose not to turn that person into an object. There’s a real person behind the wheel of that car. Choose to extend to them the same level of grace you’d like to have extended to you the next time you accidentally cut someone off in traffic.

Before you decide to label someone (“mean”, “unworthy of forgiveness”, “weird”, “stupid”, “not very funny”, “not worthy of friendship… or kindness… or consideration”), please remember Mr. Zech… and please remember my mom.

We’re not in the 6th grade anymore. Mr. Zech’s mom is gone. My mom is gone. Let’s remember the lessons they left us.

Bettie Ann Aitkins
Bettie Ann Aitkins

3 Responses

  1. Missy Morehart
    | Reply

    Very moving story, Jim! My mother also left behind some very important life lessons. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her and still wish she was here. I will always feel blessed that she taught me the good things about life, and I hope I have been able to do the same for my girls. Thanks for sharing this story!

  2. lisa russeff
    | Reply

    Jim, its amazing that you told this story,I too have been trying to learn these life lessons.You never know what is going on in another persons life.Learning not to judge others and accepting people for who they are.I love reading you Obstacle Blaster, I have found I have many obstacles to blast so I am looking forward to more!Thanks again for sharing:)

  3. Rich Zech
    | Reply

    Jim
    Its been 32 years since you and I were at Northwood elementary. )

    You have a very unique style of writing. It is a talent you can be proud of. I remember the memory that you so clearly described. Over the years I have learned that what you say and what you do can greatly influence a person. The kicker is that most times you have no idea that you have influenced anyone.

    Have a great day!
    Mr. Zech (rhymes with heck)

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