Naturally, I set it aside. People were dying by the thousands of the coronavirus and millions were suddenly unemployed and isolated at home. But I dug out his April 16 email a few days ago and began picking at his brain.
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John had asked that I pass along a few kind words to Bill Elder, a middle school teacher whose photo had appeared with my 2019 column. Mr. Elder had run the gifted-students program at the Upper Darby Township middle school. He was a teacher whose mind tricks and attention were now, amid our existential panic and fear, very much on John’s mind.
“Our parents were lower-middle class, hardworking immigrants,” John wrote. (And I hope Mr. Elder, an Inquirer reader, will have the pleasure of reading these words here and now.) “I look back fondly at my time at Beverly Hills and in your classes. Thank you.”
John had written me from Boston, where he lives with his wife and three children. The kids were glued to computers for live, private-school cyber-instruction. Their teachers were great, delivering hours of real-time classes. John was watching much of it on the days he was working from home.
Still. The 43-year-old father kept flashing back to moments from elementary and high school in inner-ring suburban Philadelphia, where he had grown up the son of South Korean immigrants who lived above the family’s West Chester Pike deli.
Somehow, teachers — as the best teachers tend to do — had noticed him as a low-key child. They couldn’t have known that his parents were working brutally hard and attended hardly any school events. (His father was surprised to learn, for instance, at a banquet years later at Marple Newtown High School, that his boy had been named a basketball-team MVP.)
Those teachers — their devotion stuck with him.
“I ended up going to MIT to study engineering and earned an MBA degree, too. I’m now a stock investor in Boston,” he wanted me to tell Mr. Elder. “I’m married with three fabulously curious kids. Your classes challenged me and the spirit of your gifted classes shows up in how I teach my kids. ... Also, the Memory Box exercise helped me develop a pretty good memory. I still remember some items and the stories behind them, including the razor, Black&White jar, key, whiteout, bookend, and paint dish(?). Thank you for your work.”
When we finally talked by phone this past week, I asked John: What on earth had gotten him thinking about the old days in the midst of such a catastrophic time?
“We’ve been launching a lot of rockets lately,” he said. “I first did it in elementary school.”
Through this awful 2020, some of us have found comfort in childhood junk food. Others in music from happier times. John? He began coping by firing off $20 toy rockets from Amazon, just as he had done decades earlier as a kid in public school.
His gifted-program teacher at the time at Highland Park Elementary School: Bev Rorer.
“I remember her licking her fingers and trying to figure out where [the rocket] would land,” John said. “Little things like that come back to you.”
Such are the formative impressions made on a humble child’s soul. Teaching is meaning and love. If the half-baked cyber-sessions of the past few months underscore nothing more, it’s that nothing compares to flesh-and-blood learning alongside a great teacher.
“My teachers really knew who I was,” John said.
I later found Mr. Elder near a nine-hole golf course in upstate New York. He remembered John Choe, and also told me that Ms. Rorer, his former boss, was still kicking around at the tender age of 89 in Havertown.
Guess who I called next?
Her speech was so crisp I could have sworn she was no older than 35. She also wowed me by sending uncompressed iPhone photos. The woman who retired in the age of typewriters knew the difference between kilobytes and megabytes.
“Pardon me,” she said soon after mutual introductions. “My parrot is trying to get into my dessert.”
Stanley, she explained through the ruckus, is a bird with sass.
Ms. Rorer had sworn as a child that she would never become a teacher like her University of Pennsylvania professor father. But then she went ahead and became a teacher and loved it so much that she still takes kids out on special learning trips during the school year. She retired 34 years ago after 34 years in the business.
Sometimes, she’d bring a guitar to school and play. John remembered her telling stories about a safari vacation she’d taken to Kenya as a history lesson. She remembered John well.
“He was an inquisitive kid,” she said. “Interested in lots of different things. And he was cute.”
John chuckled when I told him I’d found the pair. But he was also speechless. Still the quiet kid, despite an audacity for sports. “I talked my way into a one-day contract to play for a minor league baseball team,” he’d told me, “and also to get invited to try out as a goalie for the NHL’s Florida Panthers.”
He is glad that his children, Rocco, Ginny, and Xavier, are healthy and have access to strong schools. And that none of them will ever have to watch, as he did, their mother de-escalate Friday night fights inside a deli where she worked seven days a week.
“You’d love to learn the lessons of life,” he said, “without having to go through the pain.”