Remembering a Friend

A good friend of mine died earlier this year, and I was asked to speak at a gathering of family and friends to celebrate his life.

This is what I had to say.

Every memory I have of my friend brings a smile to my face.  Every one.  It was fifty years ago that we first met, as young teachers.  We clicked right away, and spent many hours playing tennis, going on ski-holidays with our wives, and spending many New Year’s Eves together.  During all those occasions, we enjoyed a lot of delicious food washed down with cheap wine.

And although it might be hard to believe these many years later, legend has it that he and I were a lethal pass-and-catch combination on the flag-football field.  Or so we told our wives.

team formulating a plan

Early on in our teaching careers, my friend and I contemplated applying for promotion to vice-principal.  As the deadline grew near, however, he seemed somewhat hesitant about taking the step—having second thoughts because he really enjoyed working in the classroom.  Many of his colleagues—and I for sure—encouraged him to go for it.  We all thought he was more than ready, and I was sure we’d both be successful.

After much consideration, despite his reservations, he did apply.  And guess what?  My friend, the reluctant one, got that coveted promotion!

While I, the gung-ho guy, did not!  Go figure!

But two good things immediately came out of that experience.  The first was when my friend took me aside—I assumed to console me over my disappointment.  Not so.  He had an urgent, almost breathless tone to his voice when he was excited, and here’s what he said.

“Brad!  Brad!  Listen!  Just because I’m a VP now, you don’t have to call me Sir!”

Of course, he said it with that mischievous, little smile I was so familiar with when he was having me on.  I miss his sly, Irish sense of humour.

The second good thing from his promotion was that his first VP assignment was with the same principal who had hired me out of teachers’ college a few years earlier.  That man showed my friend and me more about child-centred education than anyone else we ever worked for.  He believed children came to school, not to be taught, but to learn; it was our job, therefore, not to teach them, but to guide them in their learning.

classroom1

My friend took that philosophy to heart, as did I.

Our mutual mentor could be somewhat unpredictable, though.  On the very first day of school that September, just before my friend’s very first staff meeting at the very first school where he was VP, where he knew almost no one on the staff, his new principal told him he would have to chair the meeting because something unexpected had come up that couldn’t wait.

Now, my friend was never, by nature, a cannonball-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool sort of guy.  He much preferred to examine every situation six ways from Sunday before committing himself to any course of action.  He might eventually jump into that very pool, but not until he’d scoped it out thoroughly.

In this situation, however, the principal dropped the news on him at the very last moment, so you can imagine his reaction.  He must have told me the story at least a dozen times over the years.

“Brad!  Can you imagine?  Just before the meeting was supposed to start!  I was petrified!  I had no idea what I was doing!”

But, as with everything he did, my friend carried it off with aplomb.

Over the years, he and I enjoyed professional-development opportunities together as our careers advanced, almost in parallel.  Many of these were at annual conferences we attended, where we always roomed together.  There were three reasons for that:  one, we trusted each other not to drink too much and stumble back to our room in the wee, small hours; two, back in those days, neither one of us snored; and three, most important, we really liked each other’s company.

The two of us spent a lot of time at those retreats, walking the trails, talking about the challenges we faced as principals, about strategies for coping with those challenges, and about how we could make our schools into true centres for learning—for students and staff.  We both benefited greatly from our professional affiliation, as well as from our friendship.

Our most influential professional development excursion was a real eye-opener for both of us.  We had applied to visit four inner-city schools in a large American city, knowing we would probably be assigned at some point to similar special-needs schools in our own jurisdiction.  I still remember stopping at a gas-station to ask directions to the first school—in those days, there was no GPS, but there were still service-station attendants.

The attendant said, “You two are going to that school?”

When we nodded eagerly, he pointed the way and said, “Keep your doors locked and your windows rolled-up!”

My friend and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, wondering what we might be getting into.

inner city2

Within minutes, we found ourselves—two naïve waifs, far from home—driving through a neighbourhood in our bright-yellow rental car, hard to miss, where the only faces we saw around us belonged to people of colour.  Nobody looked like us!  Nobody!  But a lot of them seemed to be looking at us.

We were never in any danger, but it was the first time in our lives, I think, that we both understood, at a gut-level, how it felt to be outside the mainstream—to be a person of colour in our predominantly white society—to be different, to be the other.  It was a visceral awakening.  Neither of us had ever experienced what it was like to be a visible-minority person until that day, when we realized we were.

The people in the schools were very gracious to these two trusting wayfarers who tried to absorb everything we were hearing and seeing.  It was an experience that forever-after shaped our approach to children in our own schools who came from different backgrounds, different cultures, who had different skin-colour and strange names—all of whom wanted nothing more than to live and learn together in their adopted homeland.

I’m so glad I shared that experience and learned those lessons with my friend.

Part of his DNA, I think, was a natural empathy for the underdog in any situation; he always rooted for the little guy.  Our experience in those inner-city schools certainly underscored and reinforced that quality.

Because of this empathy, it was no surprise that, later in his career, he became supervising principal for special education in our school board.  In that role, he saw it as his mission to find the best learning environment for every child with special needs, sometimes with individualized instruction, where she or he could most closely realize their potential.

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Finding placements for them was never just a numbers game.  Like every principal worth their salt, my friend took these decisions personally.  He took them to heart.

He was a good teacher, a good principal, and a good man.

It has been said that no one has ever truly died until the last person who remembers them has passed on.  If that is so, then my friend will live a long time in the minds and hearts of his family and friends.

In fact, there are countless other people out there, people I shall never meet, people who remember my friend as their principal, or as their teacher.  And I think many of them, when they sent their own children off to their first day of school, might have had this thought in mind.

“I hope they get a teacher like I had.  I hope they get a teacher like him.”

And that is perhaps the greatest tribute.

I mentioned at the beginning that memories of my friend make me smile.  And I’m smiling still because I knew him for fifty years, and was honoured that he counted me his friend.

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Godspeed!

Being the Same

The highlight of the last spring-break holiday for two of our granddaughters was, unquestionably, a week-long visit from a friend of theirs.  They hadn’t seen each other since her family moved from their old neighbourhood more than two years ago, to one of the middle-east oil states where her parents are both employed.

Iraq oil facility AFP

The visit had been arranged months in advance—a period of time which passed like centuries, I’m sure, for our granddaughters.  During the weeks leading up to the arrival, the girls became quite concerned about something, and it simmered inside for a while.  Nana and I happened to be with them when they decided to talk about it.

“Gramps,” the youngest began, “do you think when Susie gets here, she’ll be just the same as she was?”

I tried to respond honestly, but without causing undue concern.

“No, I don’t think she’ll be exactly the way you remember her, because she’s been gone for quite awhile.  She’ll probably be a little different, just as you guys are a bit different than you were then.  You’re older now, you’ve experienced things without Susie, and all of that has changed who you used to be.  And remember, she’s had a whole lot of different experiences, too, since you last saw her.”

“But, Gramps,” declared the eldest, “I don’t want her to be different!  I want her to be the same!”

It’s an old dilemma, one I recognize from my own life.  I often find myself wishing something could be the same as it used to be.  Usually, it’s something nostalgic, and generally, I’m remembering it more fondly than I should.  The arc of the universe, for me, seems to curve towards rose-coloured glasses.

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My memories frequently play tricks on me, and I tend to believe things were better way back when.  But in fact, I probably had more things to worry about, and not as many blessings to be thankful for, as I have at present.

“Why don’t you wait ‘til Susie gets here,” I suggested to our granddaughters, “and see for yourself if anything’s changed with her?  I bet you’ll find everything’s okay.”

Their apprehensive faces told me they weren’t feeling reassured, but they gamely accepted my counsel.

Well, the big day finally arrived.  According to their mother, our granddaughters’ worries seemed to evaporate in the heat of joy and excitement when they met Susie and her parents at the airport.  There was a good deal of kissing and hugging, some surreptitious sizing-up on the part of all three girls, and a great deal of nervous giggling.

Their first few hours together were spent asking and answering questions—the questions tumbling out almost more quickly than the ensuing answers.  My daughter told us later that, at first, the questions appeared to focus on similarities, the things the kids still had in common.  Only later, after these had been confirmed—a comfort level established—did the questions turn to what Susie’s new home was like, what was different about her school, and who her new friends were.

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By the second day, apparently, they were thick as thieves, just as they had always been.

The next time I saw our granddaughters, I asked how the visit had gone, and how they felt, now that they’d seen their old friend again.  I wondered aloud if they felt their fears had been warranted.

“You were right, Gramps,” the eldest replied.  “Susie was different than she used to be.  But she was sort of the same, too.”

“Yeah,” her sister chimed in.  “And she thought the two of us had changed, too.  But, that’s okay.”

“We figure it’s like this, Gramps,” the eldest said.  “Always being the same isn’t so important when you’re still friends.”

I liked that observation.  And I told them so.

friendship-day

My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017