Teach Your Children Well
I have no idea how much reality this reflects. I’ve been telling the story forever, so I assume there are nuggets of truth here. It was a long time ago, and so much has happened.
It was August 1973, that’s how long ago. Richard Nixon was entering the last year of his presidency, although nobody knew that. I was beginning the first year of the rest of my life, in a way. Memory is such a weird thing.
It’s important to me to remember, so today I’m trying. I’d just turned 15 a few weeks before, and I was beginning my sophomore year in high school. The ninth grade had been a desultory year, trying to figure out where I belonged and to which group. It was the first school year I’d begun in a while when football wasn’t on the horizon, for one thing; I’d risen to the level of my incompetence the previous season, and I understood.
So sports were out, for the most part. My grades were fine but there were no fireworks scholastically, or not yet anyway. I was unremarkable, but not quite as lost as I had been. As I recall.
But this is 45 years later, and I don’t really recall. I just have these stories.
I walked into one of my first classes that day, geometry, the next math level for someone on my track (algebra, geometry, advanced algebra/trig, calculus), not a choice, just the next class. I had no special aptitude for math that I can see, although I was an excellent geometry student for some reason. For years afterward, this teacher would use my proofs as an answer key for standardized tests. When I heard this, I could only smile. I had absolutely no memory of geometry a few years later, none. Not now, either. I have no idea why I did so well in that class.
Maybe it was the teacher. That happens.
I walked into that class on the first day, and I saw this instructor gently chewing out a girl. I noticed this, because I noticed her. I was 15 years old, as I said. There was no way I was not noticing. She was cute and blonde, and wearing cut-off jeans and a red halter top. This was a human being designed to attract attention.
I’m sure this teacher, Mr. Kemper, didn’t approve of her wardrobe, although this was probably something that just amused him, kids and their ways. He mostly was trying to talk her out of dropping the class, which he firmly told her was a mistake. I overheard all of this while I was assessing the halter top. I was multitasking.
Mr. Kemper was unsuccessful, as it turned out, but you know what’s funny about this? I remember this girl’s name. I had a long conversation with her a couple of months ago. She’s a good friend, and became a big part of my high school experience.
She doesn’t have any memory of this, by the way; she’s only heard of it from me. I need to text her today, tell her that Mr. Kemper has passed away. She’ll understand.
Dick Kemper grew up in Colorado, eventually attending the University of Colorado in Boulder. He belonged to a dining club or a fraternity or something, and one day, years later, a frat buddy contacted him, asking if he remembered a baseball player named Bob.
Dick had no idea, but he grabbed his yearbook and looked this guy up. There he was, too, playing ping-pong or some other photogenic activity. Bob, the baseball player. Bob Redford. Good story.
He had lots of them, and I listened to them all. He was a teacher, after all, only 38 when I wandered into his classroom, and he understood teenagers, how unsteady we were, how unsure and teetering on the margins of life. He knew we needed guidance, because everybody does and that was his job.
I don’t know why I caught his eye, although I was definitely teetering. I suspect he gave me a push, somehow, just knowing how things worked out.
He congratulated me, a couple of months after class began, when I got the lead role in the school play, having been coerced into auditioning by a friend. He warned me about letting my studies slip, which I heeded. I heeded everything he said, really.
He was the faculty advisor to our student government, and he persuaded me to serve on the council as a class representative. By the end of the year, I’d been elected as the next year’s junior class president. By then, most of the people in this school of over 2000 students knew who I was. That’s what kind of a year it was.
I did seven more plays in high school. My grades got better, not worse. I was elected student body president, and my senior year was about as full and fulfilling as it could be. Dick Kemper wrote letters of recommendation for me, helped me pick out my college classes, paid me to wax his cars on weekends and housesit when he took his family to Disneyland.
At the graduation ceremony, Dick was at the foot of the stage, shaking each graduate’s hand before they received their diploma. I was first in line, given my office. He had a big smile, I remember.
I can’t write anything else today. He emailed me a couple of weeks ago to let me know his medical situation, understated and needing to be read carefully. It took me a while. I flailed a little. I wrote him back, trying to stay casual, trying to not acknowledge the truth. I rattled on a bit about my life, struggles I’d had, unsure of what to say, knowing I’d said it already.
And I had. Looking back through emails this morning, searching for a picture of us we both liked (from high school days), I noticed how often these were discussions about my upcoming trips to Arizona, and making plans to stop by. I tried to visit him every time I came to the Valley. I could see in his eyes that it moved him, this former student from so long ago making the effort, but I did it for me, really. I enjoyed his company, I owed him, I needed him.
I told him, too. He knew. There was nothing unspoken between us on the subject of his importance in my life.
Still. I wavered for a few days, wondering about a quick trip to Arizona to say goodbye. I thought about it seriously, before grasping the situation and understanding that I most likely would be intruding on family.
Yesterday, Facebook told me it was his birthday, which I knew. His was exactly one week before mine, hard to forget. I wondered about him, then, wondered about sending him a note. His wife emailed me, then, to tell me that he had quietly passed away the day before. It had been quick, she said. He was at peace, and ready. He would be, I think.
Two years ago, my mother and I decided to drive together from Phoenix to Austin, Texas, so she could meet her new great-grandson. I was only supposed to be in town for a few hours, but we had to delay for a day so I was stuck in the city with nothing to do. I rented a car and called Dick, meeting him at a restaurant for lunch. We had a nice visit, and as we walked out he insisted on taking a picture.
And then he shook my hand, just as he’d done 40 years before, as I prepared to commence. I was 57, not 17, and he was 80, and nothing had changed even though everything had, of course. We met on an August morning when I was a gangly 1970s teenager with remarkably long hair, and he was a buttoned-up, suit-and-tie product of the conforming 1950s, and here we were on the other side of a whole bunch of calendar pages, sharing our status as grandfathers. Time is funny.
I wrote about him in a column after that 2016 trip. It was just a paragraph, but then I’d written several columns about him. I have to write one more now.