Written in Loving memory of Donald Spaeth; teacher, mentor, and friend.
We had Freshman English in the closet classroom. It was absolutely stifling. No windows. No space. We lived in a box. Caging ourselves at our desks, we were prepared to dissect and destroy some of the worlds’ greatest pieces of literature. We averaged fifteen years of age and believed we knew everything about the world. Our heads were so big with our thoughts; we were more sophomoric than sophomores.
He stood at the front of the classroom. Wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and cargo khaki shorts, he was not your standard Woodstock Academy teacher. Pushing his spectacles up his nose he looked around at all of us. Taking us in slowly. He absorbed us. He took his time in this first meeting.
Who knows what he was thinking in that moment while we looked dully back at him. To us, it was just another day. Simply another class. We were counting down the minutes till we could move onto the next scheduled torture in the day.
He took a breath and paused. Was this how he wanted to begin? Yes. He committed.
–What do you believe in?
He asked us. Taking in our dumbfounded looks, he spoke again. He gestured with his hands to emphasize the words. Not a single movement wasted. He worked with purpose in communication.
–I said, what do you believe in. What do you stand for? Come on!
Some of us looked at each other, confused on how to answer the question. There was silence.
The first day of class does not start like this. Everyone knew that. We were supposed to play name games and the teacher would calmly explain the expectations for the class. They would drone on about how this was going to be a hard class. That it would challenge us more than middle school did because we were far more capable than what middle school gave us credit for. Blah. Blah. Blah.
None of that was happening here. We didn’t even know his name. He hadn’t even bothered to write it on the board.
I stared wide eyed at him. A deer in headlights. The teacher stretched his fingers at his side. Waiting for us to volunteer, feverish and excited.
What did I believe in? It would have been easier if he had asked what did I not believe in. I would stand for anything if it sounded reasonable. If a cause needed a champion; if a campaign needed a poster child, I was it. I was so good at standing, I didn’t even remember what it was like to sit down. This was an impossible question.
He strode over to his desk. With drama he snatched a book from on top of it and held it up. This was supposed to be a clue. An obvious clue. He realized he had asked a difficult question, and instead of backtracking he wanted us to reach for it. Even if we needed training wheels he was going to push us to our limits. He saw us as capable.
A classmate in the front row could offering an educated guess.
It wasn’t quite an answer since it was stated questioningly but our teacher accepted it with spirit. He dramatically clutched at his heart and took several steps backwards. Struck with the force of the answer.
He paused again. He leaned forward peering at all of us mischievously. He saw us, all. He knew us before we knew ourselves; and we didn’t realize it.
He slammed the book down on the desk of an unsuspecting student. We all jumped from the force of it.
–Yes! But . . .
He held up his hand to us. With relished he forced us to wait. We sat in unsettling silence.
–Would you die for it?
That was our introduction to Romeo and Juliet.
This was our introduction to Mr. Speath.
You could never just read a poem, or glance through a book. Nope. Never. Everything had a purpose; an intent. It wasn’t enough to read. We were demanded to a different standard. He assumed we could read critically and excelled at reading comprehension. He asked us to look at the practical application of literature. Was its relatable to the world at large? Does this show us how to live, or how not to live? You were asked to live it.
English Literature was never to be a chore. It was to be a guide. A lamp against the dark of the world. The key to all our problems and questions. It would cure your heartache. Give you drive and passion. Help you live a life worth living.
He was determined and joyful to give us the tools we would need to succeed in life. Mr. Spaeth knew we could write essays and how little meaning an AP exam would have ultimately in our universe. He sought more and in turn he taught us to seek more. As passionately he lived; he wished for us to live more fiercely. To conquer the world and make it our own. To be present and joyous; mournful and supportive; empathetic and of service. To love and let live.
He looked at us as equals. People with enough knowledge and pain to understand adult responsibility. Only once did I ever see him look at us as a parent.
We were standing in line at the wake of friend. It was the first death of our peers. An accident. An untimely death of the best of us. Shaken, we trembled waiting in line. He came over and stood before us. He twisted his wrist uncomfortably at his side.
–Oh God, my children.
He said. We stared dumbly back at him. We were beyond words. Nothing could ease the pain of this loss.
–How old are you?
He asked. It had been years since we had set foot into his classroom. We had up and left; moved onto the next journey. We answered.
–Twenty. We are twenty years old.
He covered his mouth and tears streamed down his face. He tried to stifle his sobs.
–You are just children. You are too young for this. My God. How could this have happened?
His grief was surreal. It cemented the world. Gave root to pain. Showed us the finality of death. The horror of it. His suffering was raw and cut deeply into the soul.
He took off his glasses and wiped at his tears with his wrist. He walked away from us. He was too overwhelmed to do anything else. Say anything more. Death stole all words. Death consumed all.
Death takes away life, but it leaves us with so much more. It gives light to the shadows of our hearts. It empties us and makes us full again. It weighs us down; drowning us in memory. Still, death gives us more than what it takes. In its darkness, it reveals the light. Gives way to a new path, a renewed way of being; a stronger sense of self. It gives strength for a new day. Having known the best of us. Having learned the greatest of lessons. Having been taught the heart of life.