In the fall of 1991 I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. I did well in school, but didn’t really take all my classes seriously. English was one of those classes that came naturally to me, and that year we had a brand new teacher for English by the name of Mr. Harrison. Mr. Harrison was different. He not only had an English degree, but he was fluent in French and Spanish, and knew a fair bit of Latin. He was well-read, articulate, quick-witted, and knew how to command a classroom. Before moving to Oklahoma, he’d lived in Michigan where he ran a photo studio and did substitute teaching.
It’s been 30 years since I sat in that English classroom, and a few years ago, Mr. Harrison and I reconnected. So I sat down with him recently to ask him about his experiences. This will give you a great idea his command for words and how he played 3D chess in the classroom while the rest of us know-it-alls were playing checkers.
Mr. Harrison took that same approach when he came to our school. His classroom was like no other. He kept a massive dictionary at the front of his classroom and would often ask students to come look up and read aloud the definitions of words that we weren’t familiar with. In turn, we would often come prepared with unusual words and try to stump him. But his knowledge of languages was so deep, that he could usually come up with an accurate definition just using his etymology skills.
One day, Mr. Harrison got on to me for drawing instead of paying attention to his lecture.
Mr. Harrison and I have slightly differing memories of the cartoon. As he recalls it, I got in trouble for drawing Darkwing and the comic I turned in to him featured Darkwing. As I recall it, I got in trouble for drawing Darkwing, but the comic I turned in featured my own character I’d created and drew for the school newspaper: Skater Billy. Aside from that, we agree on the content of the comic.
Walking down a school hallway, Skater Billy passes by a teacher by the name of, well…
I still can’t believe I had the guts to call out a teacher like that. But Billy looked at Mr. Pharrison and said, “Word up, Mr. Pharrison!” Mr. Pharrision replied, “What does ‘Word up’ mean?” In the next panel Billy looked at Mr. Pharrison and told him that he would need to look up the words “word” and “up,” write their definitions down 50 times each, and turn that in to hm by Friday. Mr. Pharrison then looked at Billy with with surprise and I drew and exclamation point above his head. Feeling victorious, Billy then began to walk away. As he did, he looked over his shoulder and said, “What goes around, comes around, Mr. Pharrison!”
So now here we are 30 years later and Mr. Harrison still has that comic strip I drew for him. He told me that the comic taught him how to honestly laugh at himself and not be defensive whenever someone holds a mirror up to him so that he can see himself clearly. He said it is among the highest compliments of his life and it showed him he was relevant. He added, relevance is a big deal, especially considering the alternative.
Life is ready to dole out lessons on every street corner, classroom, cubicle, and chat room. And if we only look to those we see in a position of authority to be the bastions of betterment, we overlook most of what life has to teach us and fall short of our potential. And to be clear, I never set out to draw a comic strip to teach Mr. Harrison a lesson. I certainly never expected him to think so highly of it that he would value it as a keepsake some 30 years later. By maintaining the perspective that the teacher should always be a student, Mr. Harrison put himself in a perpetual position of receiving lessons that would bring about personal growth.
During our recent conversation, I reminded Mr. Harrison of a valuable lesson he taught me in high school. On a literature test, the question was, “Who wrote Of Mice and Men?” No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not think of the author’s name and it was right on the tip of my brain. After finishing the test, I circled back to that question and still could not think of the author’s name. So I answered, “The same guy who wrote The Grapes of Wrath.” Much to my surprise, he awarded me full credit for my response. After class I asked him about it and he said, “Mr. Darnell, that might not have been the answer I was looking for, but it was not a wrong answer.” Here’s how he responded to me telling him that story.
Such a humble response, right? He’s right, of course, and there’s yet another lesson taught from the master.
There’s a wonderful episode of The Twilight Zone’s third season called, “The Changing of the Guard.” In the episode, a prep school professor learns that after teaching there for over 50 years, he’s being forced into retirement. Convinced he’s failed to make a difference in the world or in the lives of his students, he prepares to take his own life. He’s then visited by several young men that he taught who have since died. Each of them share lessons that he taught them that helped them as they faced death, hardship, moral dilemmas and other challenges. It’s then abundantly clear to him the deep impact he has made in the world, and he finds peace in the decision to retire from teaching.
As we wrap up today let me encourage you to do two things. First, go to Netflix, Paramount +, or Amazon, and watch that episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s called “The Changing of the guard and it’s season 3 episode 37. Second, please take time to thank those who have shaped you, taught you lessons, invested in your life, and sacrificed to help lift you up. More often than not they are unaware of their own impact, and you have the chance to reward their investment in you by simply making them aware of their impact. After all, words left unsaid for too long, are often replaced by regret and remorse.
Lessons abound everywhere. Mr. Harrison was open and humble enough to learn from the comic strip. He was the teacher, allowing himself to be taught by the student.
I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday episode 564, “The World is a Classroom.” Next week the story continues as I share the story of the day I became a murderer. Stuff I Learned Yesterday is part of the Golden Spiral Media podcast network. Join me on Twitter at GSMPodcasts, or Facebook.