My Column for The Elgin Review 5.6.2020
“I like your brother John.” Those five words are the words I remember most from High School.
Mr. Burns was one of many English teachers at Benson in Omaha. I was a junior in his honors level Humanities class. He taught us Melville and Hemingway in what he called our “Fishing Unit.” Along with The Old Man and The Sea and Moby Dick, the unit included the enormously popular book that year, Jaws, by Peter Benchley. Mr. Burns created the fishing unit because a boy in the class, Rodney, loved to fish. He was a boy who was constantly ridiculed and who I now assume lived with autism. Mr. Burns created a unit to include a boy who was otherwise excluded and in doing that taught twenty-eight 16, 17 and 18-year-olds more about being humane than any combination of books could have done alone.
My brother was a Senior that year. He should have graduated the year before but he had dropped out of school for a while. He ran away from home several times from the time he was 15 before leaving for good. His pot-stash in a tennis ball can had been the center-piece of our kitchen table one night during dinner. Stone cold silence while our family ate exploded into a yelling war between my father and John while my younger brother and I escaped outdoors as soon as dessert was done. John snuck out that night and didn’t ever return to live at home. He couch-surfed with friends and I worried he would over-dose and die somewhere and we wouldn’t even know he was dead.
I didn’t realize John was back in school that year until I saw his long blonde hair from behind in one of the crowded hallways during passing period. It had been a long time since I’d seen him.
I don’t remember the exact context in which Mr. Burns said, “I like your brother John.” It was after class, and somehow, I knew John was in one of Mr. Burn’s other English classes. I was always concerned someone might think I was like my brother. It caught me by surprise to hear Mr. Burns say he liked my brother.
My brother was troubled. All the adults I knew said comforting things to me about him. Things like, “Maybe someday he’ll come around” and “I know how hard it has to be to have your family shattered this way.”
Mr. Burns said he liked John. And I’ve never forgotten his words. Mr. Burns helped me begin to see John in a different light, a kinder light. Mr. Burns gave me permission to like my brother, too.
Often times what teachers teach is so much more than the curriculum. In high schools everywhere good people like Mr. Burns are helping young people grow to be more humane, more broad-minded, better equipped to see situations and people in more than one way, in a better, truer light.
As this weird school year draws to its close, let’s give God thanks for every hard working school teacher everywhere who teaches kids and reaches kids with lessons that go beyond the curriculum, lessons that make us all more humane and inclusive and loving.
Thanks, Mr. Burns. I’m a better person because you were my teacher.
Park Church is a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome. We’re worshipping via Zoom right now. Contact me and I’ll let you know how to join us on Sundays at 9:15. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com 402.540.5615.