In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing”
80. “To Whom, or What, Would You Like to Write a Thank-You Note?”
To my high school theater teacher, Mr. De Los Reyes, would I like to write “Thank You.”
Strange how one semester can change the course of your life. It isn’t that De Los Reyes comes to mind often, or that he said any one particular thing to me, or that he singled me out and made it his mission to uproot my bad habits, or anything like that. His method was less sharp, more drawn out, stretched over months, saying things and sharing tips and assigning projects that gradually laid the foundation for what would become, not my career, but my state of mind. Were he to stumble upon these lines, I’m sure he would be quite surprised, raise one eye brow like he used to when he was making a point or listening to a student making a point. I don’t recall ever thanking him: not in his theater class, or in his philosophy class I took the following semester. Now it’s been ten years. So, since I’m going to surprise him anyway, let me at least do it with honesty. I owe him this letter.
First some background: For me, high school couldn’t have been over quick enough. I had hobbies, interests, most consisted of a screen, yet none of them included waking up early to sit in a cafeteria before a mandatory pre-req class. Not at fifteen. My high school was on the rise as far as accolades, and state recognition. Morning announcements made it clear, verbally at least, that we students were bright and stepping forward every day. But those mornings felt more like a soul’s death march, where every forty to fifty minutes we’d shave a little bit of ourselves off in subjects that ate rather than fed us. I didn’t find comfort in school, community barely, only a waste of time away from the things I loved. It would be years before I realized why. If the most important part of a school is its student body, then the second is its faculty. Yet I can count the number of high school teachers who took a personal interest in my education on one hand. The ones that were passionate about their subjects, sometimes played favorites. The ones who made it a point to spark discussion rarely cared about their day’s lessons. Of course there were ones who were neither passionate nor cared for their classroom. And of course its hard to teach. There are many asides that could be made here, but the fact is, in my high school for ‘gifted and talented’ students, what I experienced nearly across the board was the sense that my teachers were each the Sage on the Stage, and boy was I lucky to sit in class and get lectured to. As part of life’s rich list of ironies, the one teacher who didn’t rattle soliloquies at me, and instead made me feel as though my thoughts mattered, was my sophomore theater teacher.
De Los Reyes had graduated Colombia Law. He would remind us, from time to time, of his life’s journey. Cuban family, struggles, they sent their son to an ivy league, star child, he went on to study law, he excelled, got a job at a firm. The American Dream. And then, with glazed eyes, recounting the journey, he’d place one hand on his chin and pivot backwards. “Once, hunched over a pile of research papers in the dead of night,” he said, “I realized I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t in love with law. So I followed what I did love: Theater.”
That was in my theater class. He was wonderful. When choosing electives for the following semester, without hesitation I opted for the only other class with him I could. On the first day of philosophy, he waited until the class had settled in, and before taking attendance, he announced: “Administration has asked me to teach this class, but to be perfectly honest, I haven’t taught philosophy ever. It will be a learning experience for me as much as it will be for you.” He handed out the semester’s reading, and then took attendance.
That class taught me many things, but what I best remember and what has carried on with me for a decade now is this: That I could be an equal with my teacher and peers. We can learn a subject together. There is nothing better for a fifteen year old caught up in his own little world of adolescent angst than that pull of a passionate educator, who had himself carved out a life according to himself, into the realm of beautiful ideas and eloquent speech, and yes community. I was reserved in my other classes all four years, but in De Los Reyes’s philosophy class, I was present, I was loud; I shared and I listened and I learned. Thanks to him.
With that said, here is my note:
Dear Mr. DLR,
Remember me? I was the pimply student from your first Philosophy class at Carnegie Vanguard High School ten years ago, the one who sat in the middle of the room, in front of the bookcase, and who raised his hand the whole class. I just wanted to say…
Thank you. Your class, along with your Theater class, gave me tools I use to this very day to think critically for myself and to communicate those ideas to my peers. I still cherish those Friday classes devoted to reading. I’ll never forget those open discussions on romance or communism. Were it not for your egalitarian approach to education, I would have never developed into the person I am today (or have at least suffered a personality complex, or two). Your class taught me that teenagers are equals to adults. You taught me to listen to my classmates. You taught me to question convention, and to take a risk for your passion, because you will always land on your feet when you take a chance on your wings.
Thank you, again. Like all great things in high school, eventually, you went away. Where did you go? Perhaps to another school. I imagine you went on tour to act for a production of The Importance of Being Ernest, staring a chimpanzee as Jack, whose method-acting strained the rest of the cast, yet drew crowds. Not sure why. But it sounds magical. Wherever you are, I’m convinced you are making a difference. Positive.
I wish you much luck and peace.
28 April 2017