Monday, November 10, 2008

Mr. Fesh and the Meaning of Life

Yesterday afternoon I read at a Barnes & Noble book store in Danbury, Connecticut, a few miles from the town where I grew up and lived for eighteen years. A beautiful autumn day, sunny, breezy and cool (as the forecasters like to say). On the drive up from the Bronx my companion and I marveled at the fiery displays of bright colors in the trees along the Saw Mill Parkway. This is my favorite time of year, when the leaves begin to fall, when the sky rains dry flecks of yellow and the earth wears a bright-colored quilt of red and golden leaves. I wondered, on such a beautiful day, who would want to spend an hour indoors listening to someone read from a book?

To my surprise—quite a few people, many of them strangers, and many more familiar. My proud mother invited many of her friends, and there were faces I recognized from my undergraduate year at Western Connecticut State University, and even a few faces of people I'd gone to high school with in Bethel. One friend, Mark, had driven down from Vermont with his new family, a beautiful wife and two equally beautiful boys, one still at his mother's breast. Mark and I had been in touch but hadn't seen each other in years (Mark looked good—a little huskier, his hair gone completely white, but otherwise unchanged, and with a fixed smile that spoke eloquently of the pleasures of fatherhood and family).

But of all the faces familiar and unfamiliar one touched me more deeply than any other. I was speaking to Mark's wife when I looked up and saw a man approaching. He wore a white windbreaker and a baseball cap—Yankees, I think. He was tall, broad-shouldered. It took me only a moment or two to recognize him despite his being out of the narrow focal range of my nearsighted eyes; and even after I had recognized him, still, there was a moment of confusion, since I was unprepared to believe what my eyes told me, and what seemed a little too much like a dream. For here was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Fesh, come to check on his pupil.

"I know this man," I said to myself and out loud as he approached, a smile already spreading itself across my face.

In forty years he hadn't changed that much. He was still tall, still good-looking (from what I could see under the shadowy visor of the baseball cap). I recognized his deep voice. "Mr. Selgin," he said—the same form of address he had used in sixth grade. I didn't say, "Mr. Fesh!" I didn't have to; my smile spoke for me. 

We shook hands, but that wouldn't do: I had to give him a hug. 

In sixth grade I had a crush on him. Not a homosexual crush, but the crush of a sixth-grader ripe for role-models. My father, after all, was much older than most fathers a I knew, and though I loved him dearly I found him lacking in certain physical respects (he detested all sports and refused to jump into water). And here was this teacher, a man—the first male teacher I'd ever had—handsome, tall (my father was handsome but already gray, half-bald, and with a paunch, and not tall), scarcely twenty-four years old. He looked like Paul Newman. 

Back then, Mr. Fesh still had all of his hair and didn't need the baseball cap. He wore spiffy blazers, pale blue oxford cloth shirts, and sharp red and blue neckties with silver tie pins. I remember going to the local Caldor department store and searching among the racks for ties and blazers like the ones Mr. Fesh wore, and gleaming tie clips to go with them. I had no reason to where such garments and no place to wear them to, but still, I wanted them, because I wanted to be like Mr. Fesh. He wore shiny brown wing-tips; I begged my mother for a pair. 

I think Mr. Fesh must have known that I had a crush on him—a teacher's pet crush. I suspect he enjoyed it (I'm a teacher now and wouldn't mind thinking that one or two of my students look up to me that way, though I don't imagine any of them do; but they are older undergraduates, children of a more cynical time, and much less inclined to look up to their teachers). 

I remember one evening my mother invited Mr. Fesh and his wife for dinner. What an exciting night! For me it was like having the Pope or the Beatles over for supper. About that evening I remember nothing but my excitement. Mr. Fesh drove a red convertible Mustang: the perfect car for a male role-model. I remember watching through the window and seeing it come up the driveway, the feeling of unreality that accompanied this spectacle, the sense that the impossible was happening, that miracles existed in the world.

Having taught sixth grade for a year or two, Mr. Fesh went on to become a phys ed instructor. His son—one of his sons—had a brief baseball career and played in the major leagues for several seasons (I forget what team) until an injury of some sort cut his career short. I imagine that this was a huge blow to his father, a kind of death. Mr. Fesh, meanwhile, became a baseball scout. I learned these things through the grape vine over the years.

Now here was Mr. Fesh, my sixth grade teacher, alive and looking well. Retired, he told me. I asked if he would stay for the reading. "Nah," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think so. Too boring." And then I recognized that glint in his eye, and remembered his dead-pan delivery. "Now there's someone I need to say hello to," he sad, and I followed the trajectory of his eyes as they took in my eighty year-old mother. I remembered how he and my mother used to flirt with each other, how several times on school field trips they had sat together on the bus until someone warned Mr. Fesh, "You'd better stop sitting next to that lady; people are starting to talk." My mother and I both had a crush on Mr. Fesh. But hers was reciprocated.

While I read, I saw no sign of Mr. Fesh in the audience; perhaps he had left, after all. But when I had finished he appeared again, off to the side, giving me the thumbs-up. "I'm proud of you," he said. If my dead father had risen from the grave to say the same words to me I wouldn't have been more pleased. 

If over the years I've had reasons to wonder if it's all been worth it, if all the rejection, all the struggle, all the disappointments and despairand disillusionment  have served up any purpose, if there's been a meaning to all that I've done or tried to do over the last forty years. Most of all I've wondered if the sacrifices (money, children, sound sleep, peace of mind) have been worth it. Yesterday afternoon when Mr. Fesh gave me the thumbs-up I had my answer and the answer was a resounding "Yes."

Sometimes, if only for a moment or two, life really does mean something.

Thanks, Mr. Fesh.

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