Coming Home: Saying goodbye to a decent man
The high school gym. It's where some of us nailed our first free throw or were picked last for dodgeball in gym class. It's where small-town kids learned to two-step or performed our first solo in the choir, forgetting a few words but nailing the...
The high school gym. It's where some of us nailed our first free throw or were picked last for dodgeball in gym class. It's where small-town kids learned to two-step or performed our first solo in the choir, forgetting a few words but nailing the high notes.
In small towns in rural America, dreams are realized and shattered on the worn wooden floor of the high school gym.
But for all of its function and purpose in the life of a small community, there's another important and heartbreaking commonality that it serves, one unfortunate reason we've all once found ourselves gathered together with our town in the bleachers lining the walls, facing a stage set up with flowers, a podium for a pastor.
A piano for a hymn.
Because in times of unpredictable tragic loss of a community member, the high school gym is the only place big enough to fit a whole town in mourning.
And so I found myself there last weekend, walking behind my husband in his black hat past bleachers full of familiar faces, toward the front of the room where my dad played guitar and sang lonesome church songs.
We were there to celebrate the life of our past agriculture teacher, FFA adviser and dear family friend, who, in his early 60s, passed away from a sudden health complication, breaking the hearts of former Greenhands throughout McKenzie County.
Mr. P. That's what we called him, even 15 years later when he was long done being our teacher. Because he earned it with us, that sort of respect you grant a man who was brave enough to coach a room full of squirrely ninth-graders on how to use a welder, before moving on to hands-on lessons in butchering chickens, followed by a spring course in landscaping in his own backyard and wrapping up with a lesson in parliamentary procedure.
Respect is what his students gave him because he gave us trust. His youngest son said it eloquently as he stood bravely in front of a room overflowing with his dad's former students, all who share stories and memories about a man so kind and so passionate about his work that it couldn't help but spread to even the most hard-nosed kid in his classes. He said, "My dad was the epitome of decent."
A decent, positive, kind man who expected nothing less from the world -- or his students.
And so he was the kind of teacher you didn't want to disappoint, because we were his "good kids," a label we may have ignored otherwise, but somehow took for truth coming from Mr. P.
But here's the difference. Here's why Mr. P., a retired agriculture teacher and FFA adviser in small town America, had his funeral in a packed high school gymnasium instead of at the church down the street.
Because even after the man wrote his last grade for us, after he taught us the FFA creed, how to sort out bad wheat or how properly judge a steer, he kept showing up, for us and for the community.
He was at college graduations, weddings and funerals of students who were inspired to follow in his footsteps, and on the other end of the line if you had a question about whether or not the tree you picked to commemorate your wedding would survive a year in North Dakota.
Behind the open door if you needed a place to stay.
He was in the front row of my concerts, out back helping the neighbor butcher a deer, in a boat taking you fishing or at a city council meeting making his case to plant trees on Main Street.
And so it's no wonder the high school gym was packed the day we had to say goodbye to Mr. P. Because saying goodbye to Mr. P is like waking up to find that the big oak tree that grew in your backyard for years, the one that provided the best shade on sunny days, turned the most vibrant yellow in the fall and blocked the winter wind, is suddenly gone.
And we're all left standing together in the rain knowing nothing can ever replace it, hearts breaking together on the floor of that high school gym.
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughter on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at email@example.com .