Yesterday I wrote about Mrs. Mackintosh, my twelfth grade English teacher. I actually started that post thinking about a few different teachers in my life, but my memories of Mrs. Mackintosh soon took over the entire piece. So today, I thought I’d reflect a bit on another teacher. I’ve had this story in my head for a while now, and I suppose that now is as good a time as any to “get it down.”
It was Back-to-School Night at my sons’ school, September 2012. As my husband and I walked through the too-small hallways towards my sons’ classrooms, I saw an older gentleman in the crowd approaching from the opposite direction.
I would have recognized him anywhere. Tall, shaved head, and smiling eyes—it was Mr. Wemple, my former high school social studies teacher.
At first I wasn’t quite sure, but no, it was most definitely him. Then I heard him greet someone in the hallway, and that’s when I knew for sure. The voice. That low, deep, slightly gravelly voice. The kind of voice that carries easily and can command a room.
William “Buzz” Wemple was my social studies teacher three times over. He taught me American History 1, American History 2, and AP U.S. History in 9th, 10th, and 12 grades (why I essentially took three years of the same course, I’m not sure). It was from Mr. Wemple that I learned what the word quagmire meant, especially in the context of the Vietnam War, a “fun fact” that somehow comes up in my English classroom every now and then. It was from him that I learned the term gunboat diplomacy and what made the New Deal so “new.” And it was from Mr. Wemple I also learned that nothing good ever comes out of Glenside, a neighboring small town where he grew up (he was half-joking… I think).
He often sat at his desk at the front of the room, arms folded, notes spread before him. Even when he sat, he was tall. He wore a uniform button down shirt and tie with khaki pants every day. He could speak, non-stop, for an entire class period. He had a strong forehead and small, twinkling eyes. Today, Mr. Wemple’s style of teaching might be dismissed as too traditional, a simple lecture. There was no “turn and talk” or “think pair sharing” or “jigsaw” going on in his classroom. He smiled mischievously at his own jokes—which made you laugh, of course—and he paused dramatically and shook his finger at us to make a point. An occasional question was posed to the class, an answer from the crowd offered, but it was his voice—commanding but warm—that filled the room. He embodied the “sage on the stage” model of teaching… and it was wonderful.
When he wasn’t sitting, he was up at the blackboard, talking and writing notes furiously, underlining key terms, sometimes twice, to make sure we knew to pay attention. And if you did—pay attention, that is—and you took your notes faithfully, you were well prepared for his tests. Though I’m sure it wasn’t possible, I swear his room was always warm, with the sun streaming in, just as furiously, from the windows.
I was a quiet student in all my classes. Given how self-conscious I was about speaking in any kind of public format, the fact that I’m a teacher still boggles my mind. So even though I sat in Mr. Wemple’s classroom for three years, I don’t know how well he knew me beyond his gradebook.
When I saw him again, nearly twenty years later, walking through my son’s elementary school hallways, I wanted to stop him. But I didn’t. I hesitated—what would I even say?—and the moment passed too quickly. I kept an eye open for him the rest of the evening, but didn’t see him again. I went home regretting that I let the chance to talk to him slip by. I told my students the next day. “You should have stopped him,” they told me. Yes, I should have.
But a year later, on a warm September Saturday, I had another chance. I was at the park for my son’s soccer game. As the teams were warming up, I saw Mr. Wemple, folded lawn chair in hand, walking towards our field. I watched as he placed his chair down the field, just a few dozen feet away. He greeted a few parents and then a kindergartner on the field: his grandson.
A few minutes later, I was at the end of the field taking some pictures when he walked by. “Mr. Wemple?” I called out.
He turned around. “Yes?” he answered in that same teacher voice.
“I was in your class. You were my teacher.”
He smiled. This wasn’t the first time he’d been stopped by a former student.
As I reintroduced myself, he came closer and offered his hand. He didn’t remember me, which I expected, but he was warm and interested. As we talked, I discovered that he retired a few years ago after 30+ year career, and that he has two grandsons at the same elementary school where my sons go. I told him that I became a teacher, and that I’m sure it had something to do with the great teachers I had, teachers like him. He chuckled a little, asked where I taught. He knew the tennis coach at my school from many years ago and asked about him. I didn’t know much, as those lines of conversation tend to go.
We only spoke for a few minutes, but here’s the part I will always remember. He shared how he never thought he would have become a teacher. “Never,” he said, with emphasis. Then after a deep breath, he went on to explain that he got money to go to school through the G.I. Bill, and when it came time to decide on a path, he remembered that the teachers he had in school always seemed to like what they were doing.
“They enjoyed their work. They liked being there,” he smiled, “So I thought, why not?”
“You always seemed to like what you were doing, too,” I pointed out.
“Well, that’s true!” he beamed.
When we parted ways, he turned to me and wished me a happy career, as happy as the one he had. “It’s wonderful work,” he added, eyes twinkling.
Looking back, I’m reminded of something that Penny Kittle said at NCTE last November. It was the last day of the conference, a conference she said that would surely leave her exhausted. But no matter, because she couldn’t wait to get back to her classroom the next morning. And that’s when she quoted Stephen King, from On Writing: “I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
I’d say that’s true for Mr. Wemple.
Turns out that wouldn’t be the last time I would run into Mr. Wemple, now that we are in the parent and grandparent stages of our lives. When I walked into my older son’s 4th grade classroom this year for a special class project, Mr. Wemple and his wife sat down next to me. I smiled, reminded him of who I was, and this time, we talked more than those few minutes on the soccer field. This time, I got to tell him that he taught me the word quagmire. He laughed.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 250 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.