When you’ve spent almost forty-six years talking to your most special friend about virtually everything, it’s not the least bit unusual to continue those conversations after that person’s corporeal being is dust, or ash as the case may be. Some people might think that’s weird. Fortunately I don’t care what people think, which makes life a lot easier. Anyway, during the course of my days, it’s not unusual for me to direct a comment or two in Michael’s direction. Sometimes they’re just to share some news about our kids or grandchildren. At others, when the world’s problems are too huge and complicated, I talk about those, especially when I feel helpless in the face of them all. Occasionally though, there are moments in which I truly, desperately wish he could hear what I want to tell him, the kinds of things he often wouldn’t have believed, despite all evidence to the contrary. Most of those moments revolve around the lifelong uncertainty he carried within himself. Michael grew up in an environment which made him feel inadequate. His parents were perennially disappointed in his life choices, practically ensuring that he would never be confident and sure of himself. I used to tell him that his strongest suit was self-deprecation. His insecurities were my mortal enemy. As his partner, I tasked myself with the job of trying to undo his psychological damage, to help him develop the self-esteem he so richly deserved.
Over the years, he was able to improve, to see himself as he really was, rather than through his parents’ lens. Michael led a fully realized life as an adored husband and father, a small business owner, then a respected public official, and finally in his true vocation as an educator. That life was the instrument behind his healing process which eventually helped dissipate his early history of feeling like a failure. I can’t say his negativity wholly disappeared but it definitely got smaller. I always wished that he had more time to appreciate himself as much as he deserved. In the past two months, now over six years after his death, Recently, I’ve received two unexpected missives, one from a young teacher who started her career in Michael’s department at school, and the other from a former student. They would have gone far in building Michael’s faith in himself. The first was the teacher’s thank-you note. The one from the former student came via my son-in-law, who serendipitously, is now that student’s professor, fifteen years later. Both of these people had struggled, the teacher after being overwhelmed and drowning in her first job, and the student from having a difficult home life in which he felt abused and adrift. Michael was always sensitive to those who suffered from uncertainty. His ability to identify them and to nurture them was one of his great gifts. He would have been so gratified to receive these.
I hope this note finds you well! Perhaps in the garden or spending time with your grandchildren. I wanted to take a moment as school is starting to send you a thank you note. Yesterday I was asked to share a story with a new colleague about a time when I felt seen and valued, and I immediately thought of Michael. I still think often of how he really ‘saw’ me at one of the hardest moments of my life, and planted in me such incredibly important seeds of self-worth and self-confidence. I’m living back in my hometown, on my third year teaching middle school math (!), and this year in a pilot program, doing all kinds of things with kids that Michael would love. I know I’ll be asking, “what would Michael do?” often this year. I’m so grateful for the part he played in setting me down a path where I’ve settled into my 30’s feeling whole as a person, and confident as an educator. Sending you lots of love.”
The following is the email my son-in-law received:
“I found out this morning that I had your father-in-law as a teacher in high school. I hope it’s ok that I share a few of the memories I have of him.
“I transferred from a small private school to the larger public high school during my sophomore year (2008). I remember meeting Mr. P. that first week – he scared me to death. He would randomly call on people to read out loud the various magazine or newspaper articles he would bring in. And he wouldn’t have people read just a line or two, I’m talking PARAGRAPHS! The first time he called on me I was so nervous. I started reading and when I came to the word “bass” I pronounced it as in the fish – the context of the story was as in the instrument. The whole class laughed, but Mr. P. made me keep going. After the class,he pulled me aside and told me mistakes happen to everyone and to not let it get me down. This was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life. I made sure to have him as a teacher for the rest of my high school years.
Mr. Pollock took us on interesting field trips. He would often have guest speakers come in to his classes regularly to teach us hard skills we would need to know as we became adults. He would have politicians come in, real estate agents, car salesmen, bankers, and more. He taught me how to write a check. Twice I got to witness his favorite guest speaker, his daughter, who helped him perform a political skit to ‘Who’s on First?’ He helped me become an election judge each year (getting paid to skip school was awesome!) and always encouraged us to attend city council meetings. He would have us debate opposing sides of controversial issues and always made every viewpoint welcome.
But it wasn’t these memories that made Mr. P. special to me. My father was an abusive alcoholic (to put it mildly) and my mother struggled with mental illness. At 14, I started working at a Taffie’s Diner full time to help support the family. Mr. P. would come in and visit me occasionally. I started falling behind on assignments and classwork. Many days I would miss school altogether. He would offer me extension after extension. During my junior year, he called my house almost every day it seemed. My parents got so sick of him calling they would see his number and not answer. They didn’t care whether I was in school or not. I would listen to the voicemails he would leave over and over. He was the first person who I could remember really cared about me, about my future. I never told him I would listen to those voicemails, but they meant so much to me. I never wanted to disappoint him. Without him, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school.
After high school I tried college, but I was working too many hours to make it work. A few years later, after Taffie’s had closed, I fell into some tough and dark times. Maybe it was just sheer luck, but I started a small business that was successful, which then opened doors to even more opportunities. I’ve been more successful than a kid like me was ever supposed to be. I paid cash for my house and even bought the duplex my dad lived in and raised his rent – it might not have been the healthiest way to get revenge, but it sure felt good cashing those checks until he finally moved out. But no matter how much money I made; I could never shake the feeling that I didn’t finish school. I’m sure part of that is because of your father-in-law. So now at 32, I’m the grandpa on campus finishing up a psychology degree.
I guess all of this could really be summarized like this. In my world growing up nobody cared about me. Your father-in-law did. And it made all the difference. And the most beautiful part was there was nothing special about me. Mr. P. cared for all of his students like this. He truly made a profound impact on my life and on the lives of so many others!”
I wonder what Michael would have felt, knowing that he managed to turn his own insecurities into tools which would truly benefit others, leaving a long-lasting impact on their lives. I so wish that he could have known more of his legacy. I’m grateful for these people he touched years ago, who took the time to acknowledge how he helped them. We all need whatever support we can get in this world. I share these letters to remind myself and anyone else, that if there are individuals who made a difference in your life, let them know. Meanwhile, I’ve flung their words to Michael, somewhere out there in the universe. Perhaps they’re nothing but shouts into the void. Or maybe not.