For some reason, this morning I woke up thinking about my eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Eastman. Maybe it was triggered during the gab sessions with my best friend who came in from Nashville two weeks ago. We talked a lot about high school, reminiscing the good and bad times. Both she and I have similar backgrounds, parental problems, and trust issues. It doesn’t surprise people that we’re still close friends. Anyway, I remember being rather candid with her, saying, “I wouldn’t have survived high school without Mr. Eastman.”
The first time I saw him, I was sitting in the front row of my eighth grade homeroom. He came bumbling in the door, with a shuffling walk and huge feet that reminded me of a clown. His shaggy brown hair hung down into his eyes, and he constantly shook his head like a dog to see better. He introduced himself to the class as our homeroom teacher, and also our Earth Science instructor. In the rinky-dink Elk Lake Jr/Sr High School, he stuck out like a horse in a herd of goats. We all immediately recognized the fact that he was a new teacher; in fact, he admitted to us that it was his first year teaching. Some of the nastier kids smelled blood, and tortured him thoroughly for the entire year, even going as far as spraying foul smelling liquid onto him as he walked by. I don’t know how he put up with the blatant disrespect.
Before morning announcements, I would sit at my desk with headphones, rocking out to 80’s hair bands and death metal, while reading a book to calm the rage that was a constant companion in those days. Music and literature were my escape from life: parents who flip-flopped back and forth between overbearing and absenteeism, sexual abuse at the hands of someone I trusted, and the depression that kept me on the edge of the cliff, about to step off at any moment. Not to mention the normal teenage anxiety about appearance, weight, and where the next insult was coming from.
So there I was, thirteen years old, with my own year of torture behind me from the seventh grade. I’d developed a bad attitude, and believe me, I wasn’t afraid to use it. I barely spoke, but if I did, it came out as a snarl, like a dog that had been starved for years and suddenly offered food. I sat silently in his class for a few weeks, responding only when spoken to in my typical hostile way. One day, I had been particularly rude, and was asked to stay after class.
Instead of giving me the lecture or referral to the principal that I probably deserved, Mr. Eastman simply talked with me as though I were a real human being. I wasn’t used to that sort of thing, and it made me uneasy. I remember looking everywhere but at him. Then, I happened to catch a glimpse of the cover art from Def Leppard’s Hysteria. That album was, and still is, one of my absolute favorite albums. Back then, it was one of the most important collections of songs that helped me survive. Now, it is simply a great album with both good and bad connections to my past. I made a passing mention of it being a great album. My jaw dropped when he told me he saw them live when they toured for the album. Suddenly, a connection was made. We spent the rest of that year blabbing through homeroom about great albums and songs, and talking about Greek mythology while he taught us the science of constellations.
After my eighth grade year, I made it a point to stop by his classroom every once it a while to shoot the breeze about a new album that had come out, or a novel I had just read. Eventually, we started talking about things that were more personal, like when I met my dad for the first time the summer after eighth grade. Life was still really bad at home, but by the time I hit eleventh grade, things had spiraled out of control.
I remember going on an after-school trip to a college fair my junior year. Mr. Eastman was one of the chaperones, and I spent the entire ride home talking about colleges with him while my friends made out with their boyfriends, or talked about where the next party was going to be. I confessed to him that I was scared of never being anything, of always being insignificant. He told me, “Trish, you’ll make it. Get out of here. Go away to school and never look back.” Later, I remember how he went to bat for me, making it possible for me to stay in the district during my senior year when I got into a serious bind for skipping school, and how he fought to get me into the National Honor Society, even though I was into some trouble. He also steered me through the mysteries of college application essays, and financial aid paperwork.
At the time, I appreciated him as a friend, but that appreciation is nothing compared to how I feel now that I’ve accomplished a lot of things that I set out to a long time ago, even with a few bumps in the road. I realize that what I had was magical for an unlucky kid in the sticks. I had a mentor. These are the people that foster and encourage growth, hold our hands when we’re down, and point us in the right direction on the road up. They reach out to someone in need, forge a connection, and expect nothing in return. They are truly heroes. As I move on, accomplishing new goals that I’ve set for myself, and keep reaching up for those constellations in the sky, I’ll keep that in mind. Maybe the best way that I can repay Mr. Eastman is to follow his example, and reach out to others in need. Maybe if we all did, this world would be a little more kind. Who couldn’t use a little kindness?
Did you have a mentor? How do you feel about them now?