A couple of months ago I wrote about my high school English teacher, Mrs. Greer, the first person who suggested I might think about becoming a writer. I’ve been corresponding with her regularly ever since, and we’re planning to talk on the phone very soon.
Last Saturday night I sat in my late father’s old armchair, waiting up for my 17-year-old daughter to come home, and thinking about my terribly fortunate life, one I could never have imagined as a drifting, spacey young son of two writers in Hudson, Ohio, in about 1984. A couple years earlier, in seventh grade, I had brought home an F in English, prompting my mother to suggest in a letter to a friend that maybe she and my dad were just too much to live up to.
And yet here I sat, 52 years old, a Chicago writer and a convener of a global communications community, loved by a fine family and surrounded by more and better friends and living a more adventurous life than my parents’ comparatively cloistered vision of life ever could have envisioned.
In a reverie of gratitude and wonder, I found myself Googling another teacher who might have helped me in ways my parents couldn’t. Mr. Yanko was a high school teacher who taught history with belly-laugh humor. He was also the golf coach who had cut me all four years in tryouts, with loving chuckles of admiration at my senseless persistence.*
There was a video! From earlier this year. I hadn’t heard Mr. Yanko’s voice, or his humor, in 35 years. The video has four views. Two of them are mine.
Mr. Yanko has gone on to teach at Archbishop Hoban High School, in Akron, Ohio.
He is still funny. He talks about his early challenges with algebra. “For the first time, I figured out what x equalled. I was pretty proud of that. Not so good with y, but I thought x makes a good start.”
And in the video, he unwittingly explains what he—and what so many teachers and others—have done to make my life possible: By watchful, honest encouragement. Mr. Yanko talked about a teacher who told him he had a gift. “He said, Robbie, you know, your mind works differently than others’. You’ve got a way of expressing yourself that’s unique. … Because of the gentle nurturing … pretty soon I realized that I wasn’t any longer like a raft in the middle of an endless ocean, buffeted by the tides and currents and winds, with no direction. I started to realize that maybe I had the ability to chart my own destiny.”
That was in 1966.
Mr. Yanko brings us to today, delivers a message to students now: “In the spirit of bringing hope to you, it is my honor to say to you today, I hope you find you are living up to your ability. And if you’re not, maybe it’s time to consider that. I hope you realize you have some gifts. You’re not adrift on an endless ocean. Maybe it’s time to think of grabbing an oar, or setting your sails, or starting your engines, and making your own history.”
And then my daughter came home. And I played her the video. She was tired from the day. I don’t know if it touched her. But it touched me. And maybe, if you watch it, it will touch you, too.
* Mr. Yanko, it wasn’t actually senseless. I knew if I made the first cut, I got to play that one round at the Hudson Country Club, before inevitably missing the final cut. That was the only chance I ever got to play there. Thanks for that, too!