Friday, June 9, 2017

Thank you Mr. G

I may be one of the last people left still playing "Candy Crush," but I'm pretty faithful about it. It's become a nightly bedtime ritual to use up my allotted "lives" to try to pass yet another level. I don't know that I'm especially good at the game, but I'm diligent.

A lot of the levels I've played lately have this challenge where if you clear enough of the "jelly" of a 3x3 square, a hammer will come down and shatter what's left, thereby jostling every piece of candy on the board into a different position. Sometimes it's jolting because the next match my eye just saw is suddenly knocked out of place and not there anymore. You kind of get used to where the pieces are and then suddenly, they all get knocked around.

The game stays the same, but everything changes in that one moment.

That was exactly what came to my mind early this morning. I was just starting to get moving for the day and with nothing pressing to do on these lazy summer mornings, I often just grab my phone and take a quick look at my Facebook feed before the day starts. I was scrolling through when suddenly I saw a post in which one of my favorite teachers was tagged. My stomach dropped when I realized he hadn't written it. I thought something was wrong and immediately a voice inside my head started to silently scream, "No."

And then I read the words his son had typed - that Mr. Grodjesk had died this morning.

Boom - the hammer hit - and suddenly everything changed and I am grieving a great loss.

Mr. Grodjesk was my science teacher in junior high, for both 7th and 8th grades. I was not particularly strong in science (I mean, I went on to get a college degree in Journalism, need I say more?) but Mr. Grodjesk definitely made it fun. He was always eager to get started, always so passionate about what he was teaching us, and never really willing to let anyone be less than completely engaged. He would do experiments with dry ice that were impressive. One time, he showed us DNA. I don't think any of us really understood what he was so excited about but thinking back on it, he was showing us DNA in junior high science in the late 80's. That seems pretty impressive and the sign of a lifelong learner sharing his passion.

I remember spending extra time in Mr. Grodjesk's lab working on my science project (does the size of the environment affect the growth of a goldfish - yes, for real) and I remember working so hard to get an A and getting within a couple of tenths of a point and him rounding up on my behalf in recognition of the effort I'd put forth. (That's a lesson that several of my own students at Bradley have benefitted from.)

It isn't so much the stories or lessons in class I remember, it's more the way this teacher made me feel.  I'm not even sure I can properly articulate it, he was just one of those rare and wonderful teachers who stays with you over the years and always comes to mind when someone says the words "favorite teachers."

A few years ago, he happened to come to mind one night and so I did what we all do in this day and age- I looked for him on Facebook and sure enough, there he was. We officially reconnected in December of 2014 and in February of 2015 we met one day for coffee. Do you know how amazing it is to grow up and connect with one of your role models like that? I hadn't started teaching yet but I knew I wanted to and I think we talked about that. I know we talked about our families. My dad. His wife and children.

I must have been working on a story for the paper about high school graduates. I remember being struck by some of the difficult life circumstances many of them faced and I think we talked about that. In a message on Messenger he asked me, "Are these students the ________ of our community? If all the students were in a Kaleidoscope. . . what would one see?"

I messaged him on Facebook when I was planning to talk to someone at Bradley about grad school so I could teach (a meeting that fell through) and then again after I (somewhat ironically here) had started teaching at Bradley a few months later. He himself had taught at the college level (after teaching junior high) and he offered to help me navigate the world of academia.

He messaged me while visiting his sister in Carmel Valley because they were watching KSBW and he knew we had worked there. He messaged again around my Spain trip last year, to mention a 101-year old cousin he had there and I promise, had the trip been mine to plan and execute, I would have gone to meet her.

In September of 2016, he wrote that he had been "sidelined, temporarily" with brain lesions and that had slowed down his work as a paramedic. He offered to connect that week to talk about me going to graduate school but I was busy with Marigold Festival work that week. He asked for my e-mail address so he could send me some things, and that is where our chats ended.

In reading the thread on Messenger, there are times the messages seem disjointed. He would see something I had posted and then take a moment to send me a personal note - just a quick thought or words of encouragement. The writings back and forth read like something between two good friends who could pick up and put down the conversation on a whim. How blessed was I.

Mr. G came back into my life as a father figure at a time I really needed one and that, I'm sure, was no accident.

I've always felt that the true gift of a teacher often goes unnoticed. Often by the teacher themselves, sometimes by the students. Because the true gift is the impact teachers can have on their students' lives, the ways they can empower and embolden and enrich without even knowing it has happened.

The way they can linger in the shadows of a person's life story forever.

It is both beautiful and tragic to me to see the many posts of fellow students who share sorrow in the news that we received today. We are all from another time, another chapter in Mr. Grodjesk's life.

How lucky are we that Mr. G was part of our story. I am forever changed because of it, and I am forever changed by his loss.

Thank you, Mr. G.

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