Saturday, June 20, 2009

To Sir, With Love

It’s Father’s Day weekend. Later today Will and Tony and I will go to Lewiston-Auburn, an hour or so away, to buy Will a couple of pairs of pants and shirts (he’s leaving on Monday for five days in Quebec with his French class) and Tony some socks and a belt, and me a new bra or two and some lemons for iced tea. We’ll have a late lunch at Applebee’s; this will be our Father’s Day outing, because Will has a late graduation party to go to tomorrow. Back at camp this evening we’ll probably play Scrabble while we listen to the Sox game, and tomorrow morning I’ll make bacon and eggs for a Father’s Day breakfast. (I think I’ve also promised to make a carrot cake tomorrow; there were long faces when I made one for a coworker’s birthday earlier this week and didn’t make so much as an extra cupcake for the guys.)

Happy Father’s Day!

Father’s Day was a non-event for me when I was growing up. I remember telling anyone who asked about my father (and it was something people asked little kids about a lot back then, especially in suburban Connecticut, where virtually every family looked the same: two parents, an older or younger sibling or two, a family dog or cat), “My father died before I was born.” Teachers and other adults would murmur quiet, sympathetic words; other kids mostly looked confused—they weren’t sure that was even possible—and made a mental note to ask their parents about it.

I didn’t feel in the least deprived. I had (and still have) three wonderful much-older brothers, who, while they were not my fathers (or even fatherly, exactly), were (and still sometimes are) fierce protectors, fearless leaders, and thoughtful mentors. My mother had three fine brothers, my uncles, each the head of a unique, loving, more or less traditional family. I had a grandfather who, although he was rather gruff and reserved, told me stories about the Maine woods, lifted me up to pet the deer head on which he hung his hats, and taught me to play croquet in his backyard.

My friends’ fathers—as far as I could see—worked a lot, came home tired, watched TV, carved the roast on Sundays, fixed the occasional dripping faucet, grilled hamburgers, and disapproved of their daughters’ clothing choices. My mother could do all of that and more—she built shelves, repaired the lawn mower, installed a toilet, and rewired lamps. She had been a member of the riflery team in college, and she occasionally took target practice with my brothers, shooting at tin cans in the woods behind the camp. She emptied mousetraps without flinching. She showed me the official way to keep score of the Red Sox games, and took me to Fenway Park. She also baited fishhooks, took hapless sunfish off the hook, and cleaned the occasional white perch or brook trout.

Never having known my own father, and never having had to forgo traditionally father-led adventures like camping, fishing, hiking, and baseball, I honestly never thought I had missed out on anything.

But for about a year, when I was a teenager, I was privileged to have a wonderful, special relationship with a short, rumpled, absent-minded-professor-type with shaggy hair and a trench coat. (No, I’m not talking about the detective, Columbo, although I was a big fan of Peter Falk, too, and some people commented on the resemblance.)

Mr. Saboeiro was my sophomore biology teacher, and hands-down my favorite teacher of all time. Funny, quirky, thoughtful, and sensitive, he made science, a subject which had never held much interest for me, suddenly seem fascinating and essential. He filled every class with bits of his own unique anecdotes and world view, and taught us all much more than the life cycle of a fruit fly and how to dissect an earthworm.

I called him “Sir,” like Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love.” I think he liked that.

My high school had a tiny Portuguese custodian named Gemma, who appeared in the halls late every afternoon with a bucket and mop. I don’t think she spoke English, and I don’t think any of the students ever bothered to do more than nod to her. In fact, we barely noticed her. But whenever he saw her, Mr. Saboeiro, who spoke fluent Portuguese, made a point to stop and speak with her. He may have been the only person at the school who did.

As a teacher, he was fair, engaging, open-minded, philosophical, and wise.

My junior year, I had chemistry with the dreaded Mrs. McCann, and I hadn’t made it more than two or three weeks into the class when I realized that I was in way over my head. Mrs. McCann was known for homework overload, challenging classes, killer tests, and a lack of patience. I was terrified of her.

Finally, after a particularly frustrating chem lab, when I was in, as my mother would have said, “a bit of a snit,” I decided to drop the class. After all, knowledge of chemistry was nothing I was ever going to need—I already knew I was going to be a liberal arts major in college. I needed one more science credit, but the physics teacher, Mrs. Nicholson, was known to be an easy A, so I figured I’d just skip science my junior year and take physics as a senior.

When I saw Mr. Saboeiro, whose classroom was across the hall from my homeroom, I mentioned that I was going to the guidance office to drop chemistry.

“No, you’re not,” he said.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” he said.

“Yes, I am!” I said. “I don’t understand anything about it, and everyone else gets it but me. I’m going to flunk the class anyway, so I might as well drop it.”

“Don’t go to the guidance office now,” he said. “Come to my classroom after school.”

When I got to his room after school, he took my chemistry textbook, a sheet of paper, and a pencil, sat me down at a lab table, and I’ll be damned if I can remember now anything he did or said—all I know is that it was absolute teaching sorcery. It was as if I had been trying to read that chemistry book upside down in the dark, and now it was right-side up, under a bright light. In a large-print edition.

I got through chemistry. Whenever I ran up against a wall, I hauled my textbook and lab notebook into Mr. Saboeiro’s room and he set me straight. Not only did he have me convinced that I could pass the course, he believed I could get an A, and I did. In the spring, he told me I could take the chemistry Achievement Test (now they call it the SAT 2) and do well, and I did. More than that, he convinced me that the study of science, all science, was valuable and interesting and even a little bit magical.

Pretty soon I was spending nearly every afternoon in Mr. Saboeiro’s classroom. Sometimes I brought along Maria or Donna, but often it was just the two of us. We talked about chemistry, of course, but also so much more—philosophy, religion, politics, the state of the world. I shared my adolescent angst with him, my brilliant analytical theories, my incredibly astute assessments of the world condition. As hackneyed and cliché as most of my ramblings must have been, he listened to all of them, and always made me feel that I had something interesting to say.

I wish I could remember the specifics of even one of our conversations, but I can’t. I only know that that year changed me for the better, in ways I’m still figuring out. It wasn’t that he taught me everything I needed to know—but more that he opened the door for me to learn everything with a whole new perspective.

If I am even a little bit wise, he deserves much of the credit.

I haven’t seen Mr. Saboeiro since 1975, when I was 16—he moved to Arizona after my junior year, and has since lived and taught all over the world—Brazil, Greece, Hong Kong, Portugal--but, incredibly, after all these years, we’ve kept in touch, though sometimes sporadically. Always a Darwin fan, he traveled to the Galapagos Islands—which I suppose is like going to the World Series if you’re a science guy—and when Annie was born he sent her a tiny Galapagos Islands t-shirt. Now 81, he lives in Florida, where, the last I knew, he was still teaching, substituting in every grade from kindergarten through twelfth.

There are men who born to be teachers…and fathers, mentors, philosophers, and friends…Mr. Saboeiro is one.

Happy Father’s Day to Sir, with love.

No comments:

Post a Comment