Teacher and friend
As happens more and more frequently since I have entered my 7th decade, two big pieces of the once-completed puzzle of my teenage years have been removed.
Last week, I learned that Bucky Hayes, whom I had known since grade school, had died in his current Tennessee town. A few days after, I found out that George McLaughlin, my 11th-grade history teacher and later fellow teaching colleague at our hometown Bridgeton (NJ) high school, had passed away.
Obviously, as with the deaths of all people whom we know well, there comes a sense of sadness with the finality of their passing. However, today I'm much more grateful than sad since I can keep the memories and lessons I learned from them forever, or at least until the time of my own passing.
At a cursory glance, Henry Allen, or Bucky as everyone called him, and Mr. McLaughlin (or George as I later came to call him) couldn't have been more different.
Bucky was an ultimate bad boy and delinquent student. George was the embodiment of teaching, learning, and all that goes with it.
However, a deeper look would show an important similarity. They were both, in their respective ways, rebels with a cause.
As with so many young people of the time, Bucky rebelled against a society he hadn't formed and didn't agree with. George spent more than 30 years fighting for teachers and students and railing against powerful political authority figures whom he believed were destroying his beloved education system.
|Bucky and Albert Hayes in front, Tom, behind. Both|
Bucky and Albert are now both gone, leaving only Tom.
And yes, that's blood on Albert's face. The Hayes boys
had just won another fight.
Meanwhile, I was becoming part of my own group, formed more by current geographical closeness than regional background. That group consisted of all of us who lived in 3 neighborhoods, Pleasant Acres (where I lived) and Carlls Corner Village, and Laurel Heights Drive, the main road which connected them.
Now the groups/gangs/posses of our idyllic 1950s and early 60s were nothing like the Crips and Bloods of today. In fact, most of our claims to neighborhood superiority were carried out on sandlot fields or net-less basketball courts. Obviously, from time to time, fights would break out, but they would be mano-a-mano with fists (and some kicking, clawing, and occasional biting) and afterwards, the panting, bloodied combatants would usually put their arms around one another and resume their friendship.
Since we all graduated from the same elementary school system, those of us in the same exiting grade entered our local high school together. There we would rejoin our older buddies and wait for our younger ones to join us.
And it was there where Bucky and my friendship would be tested.
For parts of all 4 years of high school, I dated the same girl, Susan Van Wart. We would get together for a time, fight, break up, and then get back together again, only to repeat the same cycle. But during parts of 2 of those years, when we weren't together, Susan went out with Bucky.
Now I never quite understood then why Bucky and I never got into a fight over Susan. Well, actually I knew why I didn't fight Bucky. In the parlance of the times, he would have kicked my ass, in a manner both brutal and bloody. So I guess what I was really wondering is why Bucky didn't physically challenge me for Susan's affections. But he didn't and I'm glad.
Bucky was a major part of one of my greatest teenage insights. And it happened during the first time I ever witnessed Bucky and Susan together.
Let me set the stage ...
In our high school years, during the summer, the biggest teenage events were the weekly pool parties the 2 swim clubs in our town would have. Hundreds of us would head to the pool, some to listen to the live band, some to dance, some to swim, some to chat with friends, some to eat pizza and drink sodas, and some to head to darker corners to engage in more passionate pursuits.
Well at this one particular pool party at Georgetown, I saw Susan and Bucky talking. Then I watched them move away toward a far fence. I followed them at a distance, afraid of seeing what I was sure was going to happen, but unable not to look. I sat down on a log and lit a cigarette to embolden me. There, in the pale light of a street lamp, I saw Bucky and Susan stop. Quickly, their intimate talking progressed to heavy kissing.
I looked away. I had seen enough. Now it has been said by poets and prophets that losing a love is like having your heart ripped out. But despite my emotional pain, I knew my heart was still there. I could tell by its rapid beating.
In a matter of seconds, however, I was possessed by a strange calm. And, without willing it, I somehow began to think. Amazingly, my first thoughts were a variation on something my mother had often told me in one form or another - as humans, we can't control a lot of what happens to us in life. The only thing we can control are our own actions to those situations, no matter how pained or angry they make us feel.
So, despite what I was witnessing, I didn't cry and I didn't cry out. Obviously, for reasons previously stated, I didn't rush to the fence to hit Bucky or scream at Susan. I also didn't die, for that was the moment I realized that while a broken heart is extremely painful, it cannot kill you.
I crushed out my cigarette, stood up, and decided on another course of action. It was clear that Susan and I were over, at least for the here and now. I headed back to the pool party. I knew there were a whole lot of girls there who weren't kissing Bucky. Maybe I could get lucky.
To complete the story, although we continued to go steady off and on and see each other until we both left for college, I never married Susan as we had once planned. In fact, the last time I saw her was at the 5th-year reunion of our high school class, where she won the prize for being the most recently married.
As for Bucky, the last time we ever talked was almost 30 years ago. We ran into each other at a local gentlemen's club, only a couple of miles from where Bucky had grown up. He was visiting from Tennessee. For almost 3 hours, we drank, and laughed, and reminisced about Susan and dozen of other topics as nearly-naked women twirled and danced around us. As final conversations go, I think it was a good one, especially since it was between 2 people whose friendship easily could have ended a long time before.
As I mentioned earlier, I first encountered George McLaughlin in my junior year of high school, when for 180 days he was my U.S. History II teacher. Now I learned a lot of history from Mr. McLaughlin, but I also learned so much more.
For one thing, Mr. McLaughlin was one of the main reasons (my mother, along with my junior English teacher Louise Barber McHugh and my journalism teacher Jack Gillespie being the others) that I eventually became a high school teacher.
I liked history entering Mr. McLaughlin's class, but I departed with a deep fascination with politics, a passion which I hold to this day. I still remember a lot of the details when my friends Gary Peacock, Bobby Johnson, Doug Turner and I pulled off the unthinkable (or at least the unthinkable until this year's Donald Trump campaign) political prank of having 3rd-party deep South candidate George Wallace win the 1968 Bridgeton High School mock election against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. We utilized many of the techniques we had learned in Mr. McLaughlin's class to lead Wallace to an upset victory, becoming the only high school north of Maryland where that happened.
And, of course, as with any great teacher, there were a lot of life's lessons imparted. Here, as a sample, are three:
- You should always think for yourself, regardless of what authority says. In a unit on the robber barons of the Gilded Age, Mr. McLaughlin gave lectures that strongly supported the actions of the rich. However, he handed out lots of primary and secondary source material that even more strongly presented the opposite view. When the time for our essay test came, I joined the rest of the class in parroting back what we thought was Mr. McLaughlin's position. He gave us all F's, along with an admonishment that went something like this: "One purpose of learning history is to discern what's true and what's not. Don't blindly follow authority. That's dangerous. Think and act on what you believe or know to be true, not on what someone or society says you should think or do".
- Don't take yourself too seriously and have fun with what you do. I can still picture his Irish grin as he watched one after the other of us discover that the matching answers to one of his quizzes spelled out McLaughlin.
- In life, you really do sometimes get second chances, so make good on them. For decades, Mr. McLaughlin was on the BHS Commencement Committee, a group of teachers who worked with graduating seniors to get them prepared for their night of Pomp and Circumstances. Having decided to make graduation a 10-day long party, I was often late and bleary-eyed when I arrived in the morning for special senior instructions. The penalty was to have a ticket for graduation withheld. With graduation only 2 days away, I realized that I didn't even have tickets left for my Mom and Dad to attend. Mr. McLaughlin, again with his Irish grin breaking over his face, said: "Look, my car really needs washing and waxing. I think there could be some extra graduation tickets available to anyone who wants to fix that". I took him up his offer. Trust me, Mr. McLaughlin had the cleanest car at the 1969 BHS graduation, which was attended by my mother, father and other family members.
We also served together for a few years on the Commencement Committee. There are a lot of tales I could tell about that, but I'll let this one suffice. One morning, as we were preparing the students for processional lineup, George got a message that the principal had changed one of the grades he had given a student from an "F" to a "D". Steaming, George left the stadium and headed to the high school. On his return, I asked him what happened. "I changed the grades of the other 10 students who got an F," he said. "If it's fair for one, then it's got to be fair for all".
George and I shared one last connection. Before I retired from teaching and we moved to Washington, DC, I served on the city library board. The library was being threatened with closure, but we were able to stave that off. When I left the Bridgeton area, George replaced me on the library board, a position he held until the day he died. And the library is still open.
Over the years, I often heard George offer some variation of this ancient Irish prayer: