I have always been surrounded by storytellers. Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.
Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.
I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.
I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.
… When he retired he chose to do so completely. No Emeritus for Kaz. He bequeathed to me his library- of books, maps and slides- which still hold pride of place among my own collected works here in my living room. A friend- another of his precious protégés- and I took him for lunch and Scotch (his poison of choice) on his last official day at the university. The meal went on for some time, as he regaled us with tales of his time in Germany and in the classroom in the Roman Catholic high school in Queens.
We remained in touch as I completed my course work and worked on the dissertation that ate my life. He was always there to listen to my frustration with the writing process- or the university bureaucracy- and he managed to talk me back from the edge more than once.
Then, the weekend after I (finally) defended my Doctoral thesis, he and his lovely wife joined friends and family for a champagne and hors d’oeuvres gathering. He offered the first toast- expressing his pride in my accomplishment, especially in light of the fact that I chose a subject and approach that was challenging and outside of the norm, and congratulating me for taking the more challenging path, as seems to be my wont in all things. Then he called me a ‘real teacher’ and told those assembled that, in addition to my drive for excellence in research, I ‘belong in the classroom’.
No higher praise.
I think I felt more accomplished in that moment than when I was told that I had successfully defended the thesis and when I took that walk across the stage to collect the piece of paper that marked the achievement put together.
Or any time since, really.
Fast forward a number of months and much had changed. I’d moved back to my hometown after a period of personal crisis and was looking for new directions. I received word from a close friend we held in common that Papa Kaz had cancer. And that the prognosis wasn’t great.
That night I wrote him a long letter, recalling my most treasured moments in his classroom and in his presence, trying to describe what his guidance and continual support means to me and how I still feel his influence whenever I get up to teach. I attempted to put into words the impact he made on me- as a student, a researcher, a teacher and as a person.
Despite the care I took with the letter, I knew it fell short and that I would have to do better.
Doing so would require returning to a town I had no interest in visiting and facing down some memories I’d have preferred to keep buried.
But this was KAZ.
He looked weakened, but in no way diminished, as we sat on his front porch and talked for hours. He knew he didn’t have much time left, yet his voice was as strong as I remembered. He told me stories of what he had been up to in the past while, of his family, and flashbacks to his years in Germany and the characters he met there- some of which I had heard before, but still greeted like old friends as we revisited the tales together.
But most of all, he continued to advise me. I was thinking about going back- yet again- to school. To get a Master’s degree in Teaching and the membership in the Ontario College that would come along with it- all with a view to an eventual government job writing policy and setting educational standards.
He reminded me that I belong in a classroom- but that the classroom doesn’t have to be a traditional one, or even a physical one. He also reminded me that a true teacher continues to teach, regardless of circumstance or specificity of career direction.
He continued to lead me by his example.
Although we ended the conversation with his assurance that we would hang out again when he came on a visit to Toronto, that was the last time I would see him. The cancer he had fought for far longer than anyone expected claimed him half a year later.
My current Sitz im Leben isn’t really one where I thought I’d find myself. I am still searching for the next direction and a job that will provide some meaning while permitting me to contribute something of value to those around me. Not a fun process, but each day I have to get up and keep trying to get it figured out.
People who have been gifted with a life filled with wonderful characters like Papa Kaz are not allowed to squander those gifts.
I will find my classroom, whatever form it might take, and follow his example- as best I possibly can- and continue telling the stories that describe our humanity.
Just like he taught me.
I’ve mentioned before that Cat Stevens has one of those voices that is as familiar to me as members of my own family and closest friends, and that he remains a beloved tutor in the ways of the world. He helped, in a very real way, to set me on my particular road to find out. His wisdom, expressed through songs of timeless beauty, reminds me of Kaz, and the lessons he sometimes had to force into my stubborn head. I may still struggle with the teachings, but I never fail to hear his voice when I do so.
And more often than not, I still end up following his advice.
Just sit down, and take it slowly.
Will do, Papa Kaz. Will do.