Mr. Taylor

May 26, 2005

When I began teaching in 1969 I was a callow 22-year-old with more than enough ideas for innovation and change. My classmates and I were eager to tackle a system which we perceived as hidebound and stodgy. We were full of plans to bring “relevance” to the curriculum and give voice to the voiceless. Jerry Rubin, founder of the Youth International Party, had famously urged “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” I don’t know how many of us fully embraced that (and Rubin himself was by then 31), but as fresh-faced faculty members we did find that the old guard, the protectors of the hidebound and the stodgy, were determined not to trust anyone under thirty.

Leslie Dean Taylor was nearing fifty when I met him. He taught business subjects – typing, bookkeeping, office practice, business writing. He was unmarried, bookish and shy, a private man who kept to himself, attended church and Sunday school every week, and still lived in the house he’d grown up in. His classroom was just down the hall from mine and, looking back, I would say that, of all my new colleagues, he would be among those I had the least in common with. Nevertheless, he became my friend, doing most of the work to establish the relationship and keep it going.

That first year he stopped by my room countless times to ask how I was doing. He offered advice, sympathy when I ran afoul of some tradition I was unaware of (such as showing in English class the favorite film of a formidable member of the social studies department), encouragement when I had a difficult student. By my tenth year I had a classroom in a different wing of the building, but I still had visits from Mr. Taylor. (I never called him Leslie.) When I began following the school’s baseball team, I found that he too was a fan, and we sat together at many a game. He was the first person to greet me on our prep days in August, and the last to say goodbye in June.

Mr. Taylor retired in 1983, the year that Ron and I were married. When Lynn was born in 1985 he sent a note and a gift. When she was about six months old I had her with me in a shopping center near his home. He came over to say hello and asked almost apologetically if he could hold her, conveying the sense that I would be doing him a great honor to let him touch my child. When I retired he sent a note. We exchanged greetings at Christmas, but I don’t think I ever saw him again.

I was working my first season as an evaluator of the Pennsylvania state-wide fifth-grade reading assessment when I saw his obituary. It’s awkward to ask for time off from a temporary job you’ve just begun, but I asked anyway because I wanted to attend his funeral. His sisters had arranged a display of photographs and memorabilia, and through it I saw a Mr. Taylor I hadn’t known before. Dean (as his family called him) had been a soldier in World War II, interrupting his education briefly to volunteer. The pictures of him in his uniform, posed having fun with his service buddies, reminded me of my father, another bookish individual more suited for the life of the mind than for combat.

But the most remarkable thing was the display of Mr. Taylor’s notebooks. For years he’d kept commonplace books. He collected mostly inspirational and devotional material, quotations urging diligence and perseverance, duty to God and country and family. He read widely in Christian philosophy, keeping lists of books to be acquired and annotations on the ones he dipped into. He had transcribed much of the handwritten material into neatly typed sheaves, categorized and cross-referenced.

I think of Mr. Taylor often. I have a crate full of twenty years of notebooks. I, too, am an inveterate copier-outer, and now that we’ve acquired a small photocopier, I also scan and paste passages into my notebooks. A new section of my blog [since taken offline] is intended to help me get all that stuff into a searchable electronic format. I’m dedicating it to Mr. Taylor, and on this, what would have been his eighty-third birthday, I present a poem by Leonard Cohen that seems apropos:

There Are Some Men

There are some men
who should have mountains
to bear their names to time.

Grave-markers are not high enough
or green,
and sons go far away
to lose the fist
their father’s hand will always seem.

I had a friend:
he lived and died in mighty silence
and with dignity,
left no book, son, or lover to mourn.

Nor is this a mourning-song
but only a naming of this mountain
on which I walk,
fragrant, dark, and softly white
under the pale of mist.
I name this mountain after him.

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