Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Birthday, Uncle Frank

It's my Uncle Frank's birthday today. It's ironic that his birthday falls on this national holiday, thereby making it easy to overlook-- ironic because my Uncle Frank never overlooked another human being in his life.

Every teacher has their roster of professional role models; Frank is one of mine. My Uncle Frank taught history for fifty-four years, including a stint in Germany as an Army school teacher, forty-nine of them in the same upstate Connecticut high school.

But he wasn't a model simply based on longevity. A former student (now teacher) recently shared that I handed her the idea that every person is worth knowing. I can think of several people that reinforced that idea for me, and Uncle Frank is definitely one of them.

Frank is a true people person. I remember that every outing with him takes longer than you expect it to because simply stopping to get gas can turn into a fifteen minute conversation with the guy behind the cash register. Is he some old friend that Frank ran into, and they've been catching up? Nope-- my uncle had just met the person for the first time, and now he knows this person's life story. Frank is that guy.

Visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins was always a treat for us growing up. While my household was the loving-but-firm type (my father is an engineer), Frank and Evie were what we imagined having hippies for parents must be like. Eat when you're hungry. Sleep when you're tired. Worry about people, not stuff. My cousins grew up in a much different environment from mine, but they've both turned out to be interesting, excellent men.

My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of a comic book (Marvel Team-Up, to be precise). It was not the sort of thing you ran around sharing with the grownups in your world, but you know who was impressed? Uncle Frank.

Frank has a PhD, earned with his work on the education system of the Shakers (the New York Times interviewed him about it once). His students call him Doc. He travels a great deal; while he was still working, he'd bring back photos he's taken and put them up in the halls, a school plastered with proof that there was a big world out there and that one of their teachers could share it with them ("I want them to see the patterns in the world," he said). There are clipping after clipping of students citing him as an important influence in their lives; on ratemyteacher they laud his brains and his commitment. He was always a reliable attender or sporting events, even during the years when my aunt was suffering from declining health.

He has one of the most small town teachery stories I know-- ten years ago he had just finished delivering a talk about local history to a room packed full of former students when he suffered a heart attack. The audience included the police chief, the fire chief and the assistant fire chief; the response to his heart attack was spectacularly rapid.

Frank is famous in the family for his epic letters; the man was born to be a blogger, but his relationship with technology is somewhat fraught. I'll predict that he's only going to see this if a friend or one of my cousins prints it out for him.

Frank is the kind of teacher that everybody wants their kids to have-- passionate, smart, supportive and open-minded. A big heart, embracing all the experience the world has to offer as well as all the people in it. My Uncle Frank was the first person to make me realize that the first step to becoming a good teacher is to become a good person. For me that has been, let's say, an aspirational goal. I knew years ago that I wouldn't live up to his example-- I knew I didn't have fifty years in me, and I'll never match that man's adventurous spirit. But he has always been one of my teaching examples.

I've left out links and identifying details; I'm reluctant to violate his privacy that way. But if you're a former student of his, you know who I mean. I'd love to hear stories.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Uncle Frank. May the coming year bring more great adventure.

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