Posts Tagged ‘teacher’

I remember the day so clearly.  It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and we sat outside on the deck.  Jim Shaw looked very thin and his movement was labored, but his demeanor was as pleasant and laid-back as ever.  My father sat with us that day, which was very unlike him.  My dad was, at times, antisocial and awkward when we’d have company, but he was very fond of Jim.  Even though they were complete opposites, Jim made my father feel at ease.  We laughed and enjoyed each others’ company for a while, and though you could see that simply taking part in conversation was strenuous for Jim, he never acknowledged that there was anything different about this visit.  Although, I do recall him making a joke about not buying any green bananas, in reference to his life-expectancy, but that was a common joke he tossed around over our years together.  He eventually said goodbye, always maintaining that jovial grin.  I knew it would be the last time I would see him.

Jim did give me one more gift: that old, beat up, duct taped Bible with his writing in its margins — it’s one of my most valued possessions, even though I can’t physically manage to hold and read through pages in books anymore, I know it’s there.  Jim’s words mixed in with The Word.  The Word existed before time began, and it is absolute Goodness and absolute Truth.  There is no banality in morality; one either aligns themselves with it or stands outside of it, so there is a finality to morality.  Moral relativists reject that notion and insist that the only thing that is true for everyone is that nothing is true for everyone.  Personal morality is indeed an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or instant classic or a little pregnant or common sense and conventional wisdom.  Trust in The Good Book, not the Contradictionary.

‘Only the Good Die Young’ is a Billy Joel song that pokes fun at Catholics; and it was for this reason Jim held a grudge against the Piano Man, who is one of my favorites.  I remembered teasing him saying, “But if Billy is right, you and I will live forever, so — fingers crossed.”  Shaw was one of the finest men I’ve ever known, and he lived a full and nobble life in the noblest of professions.  Immortality in physical form wasn’t in the cards.  He spent the last few weeks of his life at his home with his wife and kids taking care of him.  By this time, I had a personal computer that I could use via voice-recognition software, so I was able to dictate a letter to my friend and mentor, in an attempt to tell him how important he was to me.  I told him that he was the best teacher I’d ever had, but he was also one of the best friends I could ever have.  In my mind and heart Jim Shaw did attain immortality.

The day I found out of his passing I was at a friend’s house and my mother drove by, coming from Jim and I’s favorite, The Italian Kitchen.  The mutual friend and owner of the restaurant gave her the news.  As much as I knew it was coming eventually, of course you can never really prepare yourself for it.

I was in a sort of surreal trance as I made my way back to the house.  It was strange, from then on I would be living in a world that didn’t have Jim Shaw.  Thoughts like that were going through my head.  When I got home my mother had a plate of spaghetti and meatballs prepared for lunch.  To go along with the meal was an ice cold glass of Coke.  It didn’t even dawn on me until I was about halfway through, as my mother and I sat there eating and talking about Jim, that this was the exact same meal that he brought to me on so many occasions.  This place was a somewhat rare treat, not something we had regularly.  I pointed out the coincidence to my mother and she said it hadn’t occurred to her either.  Jim would always come bearing gifts, and somehow in our conversations he gathered that I liked Coca-Cola, so, the next thing you know, he’s bringing cases of the stuff; the same with the spaghetti and meatballs from IK.  Maybe it was his way of saying goodbye, or letting me know that he was still with me.

Absence is to love as wind to fire; it extinguishes the small flame and it kindles the great.”  Roger de Bussy-Rabutin


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“Personal morality is an oxymoron,” he routinely insisted, this home tutor of mine.  (What do I know?  I’m just a regular moron.)  It was a dinosaur bone of contention, repeatedly being unearthed in our debates.  “There is no such thing as ‘personal morality’, because morality is inherently based on the good of all, so one person can’t decide what’s righteous, since that would be self-righteous.”  My argument was that personal morality is inevitable, since the individual ultimately chooses what is right in the end.  Say, for instance, you decided that Jesus’ way is the right and moral way.  Who decided that?  You did, i.e., personal morality.  I was in my late teens, he was in his late 60s, and we were both certain that our respective position was the correct one.  I have reconsidered after roughly eighteen years.

My high school days had become too much of a hassle: getting bundled up on winter mornings in New England, in time to meet the bus to go to a place I dreaded.  I would have liked school if it was the same for me as it was for able-bodied students, but it just wasn’t.  I had an aide going with me from class to class; which would’ve been fine, but this particular aide was — oh, how can I put this charitably? — past her prime; a somewhat slow old lady (God bless her), who was accustomed to working with the mentally challenged, and couldn’t quite make the adjustment to dealing with a physically disabled individual.  Always being talked down to like Barney the dinosaur talked to his TV audience tends to wear on you.  I made friends fairly easily when I was younger, but 16 and 17-year-olds tend to shy away from somebody who had a silver-haired chaperone following ’em around.

So, when my mother approached me with the idea of getting a home tutor it didn’t take much time to decide in favor of it.  Two days a week somebody would come to the house for a couple of hours and, presumably, teach me the same curriculum I would have been learning in regular high school classes.  This was great.  Right off the bat I was sleeping until 11 o’clock in the morning on weekdays, because the tutor wasn’t due to show up until noon.  Up all night, sleep all day.  Sweet deal!

Mr. Shaw showed up right on time that first day — something he always managed to do.  For some reason, I expected him to be wearing a suit and tie, but he dressed very casually in a sweatshirt, slacks and sneakers.  Whenever he entered the house, he always said, “Peace be with you”; which probably would’ve seemed strange coming from anybody else, but he made it charming.  I was oblivious, but my mother knew the traditional Catholic response was, “and also with you.”  I called him Mr. Shaw and he insisted that I call him by his first name, Jim.  I could tell Jim was as relieved as I was to be liberated from the shackles of the public school system.  And I was dead wrong for thinking that we’d be covering the same curriculum other high school kids were.  He liked my sense of humor and, after the feeling out process, Jim decided that sharpening my wit and honing my comedic timing would be one of our primary goals.


We’d start each session with a joke, and oftentimes it would be the same joke.  Which was weird, but Jim took his comedy seriously.  He’d bring books from old Irish comedians, so we could study their techniques.  It probably wouldn’t be permitted in the public schools nowadays, but, along with the meticulous joke-telling technique, Jim and I  talked a lot about politics and religion.

Politically, Jim was a right-winger.  I, on the other hand, was a wannabe-hippie, open-mindededed, give peace a chance, sexual-evolutionary, civil rights inactive activist looking to save the spotted owl or give it an abortion.  Jim was a staunch Catholic (though I didn’t make a distinction between Catholics and any other Christians at that time), and he came with his beat-up, duct taped, paperback Bible, ready to break it out at anytime and do the chapter and verse thang.

He had his own notes written in the margins.  I assumed, at the time, that this was his way of taking what was written and then interpreting it so that it would conform to his preconceived notions of morality; in other words, his own ‘personal morality’.  Had I not been such a smug, know-it-all punk, I might have called him out on this, and he would’ve explained to me that the Catholic Church has an unbroken Tradition of divinely-inspired, uber-intellectuals who literally did nothing else but eat, drink, meditate, ruminate, marinate in, and digest sacred Scriptures.  Interpreting the holy texts was all these great church doctors did, and, though they didn’t always reach the same exact conclusions, they came miraculously close.

Jim once told me that, when he would come to parts of the Bible that didn’t feel right — teachings that seemed to him unfair — he’d accept that he must be wrong and adjust accordingly.  This admission made me cringe.  I couldn’t respect that thought process at the time.  Surrendering your own reason to that of an outside point of view, based on nothing but an assumption of subordination (like this outside source was God or something).  And this coming from the man, Jim Shaw, who’d taught me better than anyone else about the practice of critical thinking and how I should be cautious in automatically yielding to conventional wisdom.

Although I was tentative at times about voicing my uncensored opinions on certain topics, Jim never really gave me any reason to be so.  He wasn’t at all intolerant or averse to hearing a dissenting view — to the contrary — Mr. Shaw wanted to be challenged, because he was a genuine seeker of the truth.  He was steadfast in his beliefs and convictions, so, back then I probably would have described him as stubborn, but that just wasn’t the case.  We practiced the Socratic Method, where ideas were simply bounced around in want of feedback and exploration, and possible correction.  There would have been no sense in taking part in these debates if neither of us was prepared to acknowledge flaws in our argument.  It would have been intellectually dishonest.  I want to at least be honest, if not intellectual.

Though sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, the Truth is the goal we all wish to attain, so we might as well cut to the chase.  Easier said than done, I know, since the genuine article is often a diamond in the rough.  You have to have something to be your guiding star, though.  For Jim Shaw this was Jesus and His teachings.  One can have an endless array of teachers, but I highly soberly recommend investing in only one doctrine from which you shouldn’t waver.  You ought to have a foundation on which to build.

A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.” – Lee Segall

You’re on the right path if your intentions are pure.  Money is great, but money can’t buy me love.  Love is great, but loving somebody else without first having a source to draw from is impossible; like offering somebody the shirt off of your back when you yourself don’t own a shirt.  So as Jim and I explored, chipped away at the outer shell, I discovered that the only discovery worth discovering was self-discovery; whereas, Jim always knew that finding out who you are isn’t nearly as important as finding out Whose you are.

The Infinite, in His infinite wisdom, thought it important — nay, paramount — that YOU should be created.  Is it not worth the time to investigate His investment?  I think so.

I unofficially graduated from high school the year I was scheduled to; however, I continued my sessions with Jim Shaw until I was 22 years old.  I had a physical therapist come to my house twice a week, and the only way this could continue was if I stayed in the public school system, since they were footing the bill.  It was a surprise to me to find out that my insurance wouldn’t cover physical therapy, because, after being evaluated, the powers-that-be came to the conclusion that physical therapy was a luxury, not a necessity.  Furthermore, therapy wasn’t improving my condition, it was merely “maintenance.”  That’s the word they used.  It’s hard out here for a gimp.

Anyway, though I was not happy about this at the time, it ended up being beneficial having those extra four years — of tutoring and physical therapy.  (I had a crush on the therapist, but that’s a story for another time.)  So, sometimes serendipity gives you a subtle kiss on the cheek.  I don’t believe in fate, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

The things Jim Shaw taught me stuck, despite myself.  The older I get, the righter he was; especially with regard to politics.  As I said, he did a full tilt to the right.  Shaw was a Conservative, and the people and authors he followed almost always fell under this heading.  I hated Pat Buchanan and the like.  Abby Hoffman and dead civil rights activists were my heroes.  Heroes will never let you down, just as long as they’re dead.  I still admire civil rights activists from that era, but the rub is, current counterfeits in politics are hanging from the coattails of The Ghost of Kennedys’ Past, trying to tell you they’re selling the same product.  Stop snorting the party line!  “Republican” and “Democrat” are themselves corporate entities.  They are products.  However, conservativism and liberalism are adjectives.  Still, what’s considered conservativism now is far more liberal than it was 50 years ago.  I consider myself a libertarian-leaning conservative, high in moral fiber, low in preservatives.  Separation of church and state?  Somewhat.  Why?  Because — keep your filthy politics away from my beautiful religion!

Al Charlatan is not Martin Luther King.  Pat Rob-you-some is not Billy Graham.  The manipulative media — which itself is nothing more than a product — has them prepackaged for you in the same grocery aisle as if they are one and the same.  Whatever floats your vote.

Listen to them.  If you really care, don’t be one of those people who shrugs their shoulders and says, “They’re all corrupt anyway.”  If we operate under the assumption that all lawyers and politicians are, without exception, sinister bad guys, then what kind of students are going to aspire to be lawyers and politicians?  You reap what you sow.  By the way,  the word “sinister” is derived from the Latin for left-handed.  The left?  I’m just saying…

And don’t be one of the naïve people who think that you can ignore politics, because it’s boring or esoteric.  Politics touches every area of life and how we function in society.  The same group that would tell you that it is morally wrong for law enforcement to profile in order to save possibly thousands of human lives, only seconds later will turn to a different camera, for a different story, and tell you that their research shows that 85% of African Americans voted for this one candidate, but this other candidate is winning the Woman vote by almost 65%, and roughly 70% of the Senior Citizens.  There’s also this one candidate who’s doing particularly well with unemployed overweight Asian widowers with multiple tattoos and peanut allergies who go by the name Biff.

While you’re not paying attention to what strings the Puppet Masters are pulling, they’re polling and organizing focus groups in order to try to figure out how to manipulate you and your demographic into purchasing their product; and by ‘product’ I don’t mean their brand of bottled water, I’m talking about selling you a nondiscriminatory, all-access ideology.  Once this Trojan horse gets through, your opinions are obsolete and you’ll buy anything that their manufactured celebrity endorses.

When you are reduced to an archetype, a stereotype, a particularly shaped peg to fit within a similarly shaped hole, you are a more targetable mark.  What’s fascinating is that this status is much sought after in modern times.  People will readily trade their individuality, their status as remarkable, for their unremarkable status as part of some sub-group based solely on a shared attribute.  They become a targetable mark and a marketable target.  ‘Single black mothers from the inner-city, between the ages of 18 to 32 vote this way …’  Divide and conquer.  I myself, being a middle-class, white-bread, blue-collar, multicolored-underwear-wearing, environmentally-conscious, down-to-earth, Joe-average, everyday-Joe, living in a Hyphen-Nation, don’t like being put into a box.  I’m made from the ‘think-outside-of-the-box’ mold, and when they made me, they broke it; at least according to some trendy market jargon with a monopoly on the lexicon.

I’d like to be a part of the minority of the less than 1% who are called wealthy.  Though, I’m not one of these class warfare people who think that either the really rich or the really poor are immoral parasites on humanity.  I’ve known sour grape people who harbor such contempt for the affluent and their lifestyles — a lifestyle that they themselves one day hope to attain — that it gets really confusing at times.  Some of these people work harder in an argument to justify their predetermined role as one of life’s have-nots than they ever would to make an attempt to better themselves and their position.

Then there is another group, who do all the right things and play by the rules, but still never manage to attain financial breathing room.  Sadly, this is the majority of us.  It’s one of those majorities we’d like to remove ourselves from.  But there is another majority that is even more inescapable if you live long enough.  Technically it’s a minority, but it’s not one of those glamorous minorities that we would strive to be associated with so that we could wear it as a crown of thorns, since there is no long-term payoff in this one.  Because, in this one, there is no long term.

If you’re lucky, you’re going to get to be old someday.  The music you once enjoyed will accompany you between floors on an elevator ride.  You’ll say things like, “In my day we didn’t have electricity, so we had to watch TV by candlelight.”  Within all of us is an elderly person in utero, so it behooves us to apply the golden rule to those of us who are already in the golden years.  One of the reasons we are so afraid to get old is because we can observe how society treats its elderly.  We don’t want to be thought of as expendable.  We want our opinions to matter.  And you know that someday somebody who has seen and experienced a fraction of the things you have in your life is going to roll their eyes while you speak and discard your words, because they are coming from one who might be regarded as a feebleminded old person who’s stuck in the past.  (Or an aide for some wheelchair-bound punk in public school.)

When Jim Shaw saw me for the last time as his student, he was in his early 70s and still as sharp and mentally adroit as ever.  I was with him for about four and half years, since joining him partway through my sophomore year in high school until the end of my allowed stay in the public school system.  Before Jim, I was always pretty much a B student, but he gave me straight A’s every year I was with him.  To this day my mother teases me about this.  No doubt there was some generous grading going on there from my dear friend.  (If he graded me on a curve, it was a Dolly Parton-esque curve.)

He told me on occasion that I was his best student.  Carefully chosen words were his craft, so, coming from Jim, such a compliment made me feel good.  Upon his departure in an official capacity, he left me with tools of reasoning for which I’ll be eternally grateful.  The Jim Shaw Affect has resulted in my inclination toward conservative writers and speakers, although, it’s still not the singer but the song that resonates.  It’s the Truth we seek, not its mode of transport.

A couple years after Jim said goodbye as my teacher, I found out that he’d become ill.  Years before he became a teacher, Jim worked as some kind of laborer, and due to regular exposure to asbestos on the job site, his lungs had been contaminated and it’d taken all that time to grow into a noticeable problem.  If I remember correctly, he had surgery to try to remove some of the liquid that had built up in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe.  It was shortly after this surgery that Jim came to visit me at my house once again.

to be continued…

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