As I find out that you are retiring from your decades of service to the education of the students of Tolar High School—my humble alma mater—I wanted to tell you some things I should have told you years ago…and some things that I didn’t actually realize until recently.
I want to tell you–though it’s far too many years late–how grateful I am that you both came to Tolar when you did. I was so lost. So alone in a world where I was different from everyone else around me. But you both, in your own special and different ways, made me feel special and important.
Mrs. Sullins: you were, without a doubt, my favorite teacher. Well, you and Mrs. Coleman, but you scared me less. 😉 Beyond teaching math, you made school FUN. You inspired us; you weren’t afraid to “be human” around us, smile, be stern when you needed to be, and exude joy. And you found opportunities for us to learn to excel. I think one of the biggest reasons I kept running for student council all those years was so I could be around you more.
All those things we did—conventions, activities, dances, trips—you and your joyful spirit were right there alongside us, giving us encouragement to reach out into the world and make something of ourselves. In some ways, I feel like we all grew up with you, considering how close in age we were; but that was never an issue. You had my respect from the beginning—and you always will. I may have forgotten all that trigonometry, but I cherish that gavel you gave me and every lesson I learned along the way. I admire you so very much.
Mr. Sullins, you were one of the very few men in my life who was kind to me. There’s you, Mr. Carroll…and yeah, that was about it. I knew I was challenging to you. And if I remember correctly, I never stopped talking, was a bit mouthy, and might have complained more than once about ruining my clothes learning to weld or getting my shoes dirty at the stock show.
But you remained patient with me. Stern but with an ever-present sense of humor, you taught me about some of the rituals of being a man—working with my hands (I still hammer nails just like you taught me), caring for living things, doing things with excellence and right the first time, showmanship—so many things. And it occurs to me just at this very moment writing this what a daring move it was to name me–the “sissiest” kid in your program–your Star Greenhand, the best in his class freshman year. I wonder now if you took flack for that, were criticized for it, and how much the other students spurned it. Or maybe you knew exactly what you were doing all along.
You allowed me opportunity to find my voice through FFA leadership. You didn’t condescend me or make me feel like an outcast. And our close proximity to your family gave me insight to what being a father was about, too.
But most of all, you were kind. You knew I was different from the other boys—you had to have known. And while the other boys and most of the coaches were always quick to mock and bully me for it—you never discriminated against me. In fact, I was so included, I was lumped in with all the rest of them for licks for whatever boneheaded stunt we’d pulled. (I’m sure Wayne or Polly remembers!)
Mr. S., I can never thank you enough for those actions. And I suspect that you maintained that sense of respect for all the women and men who came through your program for the last three decades.
Yeah, I learned a lot from you through agriculture classes but most of all, I learned about becoming a man when precious few others would spare a moment of compassion to show me themselves.
It is said that a good deed never goes unpunished. I rather like this way of saying it:
A tree is known by its fruit; a man (woman) by his (her) deeds. A good deed is never lost; he (she) who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he (she) who plants kindness gathers love.
~ Saint Basil
Mr. and Mrs. Sullins, go into the garden you have planted and nurtured. Enjoy it. Take it all in. For it is full of love and friendship and kindness. You deserve every single bit of joy that lies ahead for you.
(And one day soon, let me treat you to a strawberry daiquiri when you’re up in the big city!)