Never Underestimate Your Power
My favorite high school teacher passed away on Friday, July 13th. If you knew him, you’d likely think he chose this date for his own demise, even if only because we’d say it was so.
I have some of his writing I’d like to share at some point, but I can’t just yet. I cannot yet read it out loud without crying.
But I wrote this in his honor.
In memory of Hugh Scanlan:
In the blink of an eye, it passes. Life. Like the mist on the lake water, it glides over moving with grace and speed until light fills its spaces and darkness lifts. As we go about our day-to-day chores, as we laugh and cry, time passes without regard to our thoughts, our stresses, our worries, or the moments we’d like to revisit.
The sun set on us all at one time, and though I’d like to think my sun is at high noon, we never know just when gravity might cause it to fall straight from the sky crushing us with the weight of overwhelming loss.
My sun is setting. So is yours. I’ve buried the suns of loved ones for years without a question as to how I would carry on. Because we just do. We carry one day in and day out. We move forward, we move past, we move ahead sometimes tripping over our own lives, our weaknesses dropping us to the ground in moments we haven’t the strength to carry, and we get back up wondering how we survived, checking our sun in the sky for the slightest movement. But that’s the thing. Its movement is so slight we don’t notice it. Like watching a baby grow, we don’t see its occurrence, only acknowledge it has occurred.
I started my journey with Scanlan in my life when I was fourteen years old. In ninth grade, he challenged me and opened my eyes more than any other teacher had before. Sure, there were others before him who let the light in, introduced me to something inspiring. But Hugh Scanlan was it for me. He was…just a school teacher some would say…just a guy who knew movie trivia and who could rent the movie to you if you guessed the title from a quote…just someone pushing pencils and dropping tests to watch us squirm…he was an inspiration, mentor, father, husband, friend, coach, comedian, and so much more under the guise of a simple high school teacher.
After my ninth-grade year, I had Scanlan again for Oral Language Lab, then my junior year English studies and Senior year English was in his classroom too. I did the one-act play under him and went on to college to study theatre because, in all those years in his presence, I developed not only a love for the stage but also an appreciation for the work it takes to get a piece on the stage. When we studied Shakespeare, he allowed me to read Stephen King, because he and I had discussed William’s words so much after school and in his free periods, he trusted I knew the material. When everyone in the film section of our lab had to report on My Fair Lady, he let me work from Pygmalion because he knew I like the stage version better. But more than that, he knew I get more out of the play than the movie.
You see, as much as I’d love to think I was special and stood out to Mr. Scanlan, he did this for anyone who let him know they’d follow him to the moon if he only asked. He had this special power so many teachers have that often goes unnoticed until we wake up one day and realize the impact this power had on our lives. He could see deep into every student. He knew our personalities; he knew what motivated each one of us, and he knew how to keep us in a position where we were constantly growing – all without us knowing. My story is just one of many lives he touched.
I graduated in 1991. For the first few years, still living in the county, I’d pop in after school and sit and talk with him. In 2012, I came back to Virginia to say goodbye to my father. I knew I may never go back again, so I stopped at the high school to say goodbye to my favorite teacher too. I didn’t get to see him that moment I tried. It was late September, early in the day, and the office ladies didn’t give a hoot who I was and why it was so important for me to say goodbye to him before I left. But they caved and told me when he had a free period. I waited. I got in my car, drive to Gloucester thinking of all the evenings I’d drive down there to visit him at the video store and all the things he taught me standing there talking about movies. All the movies I’ve seen in my lifetime because he said to give it a watch. When it was time to head back to Saluda, my heart raced. I cried. I knew I had to share something big with the man I’d given credit to for so many years without him knowing. And I wasn’t sure if he’d even care or remember me. But he did. And we talked. He told me he was retiring after that year. We shared to sorrow from the past year and some laughs from years past. Finally, I told him I had to come to see him because I’d buried my father and wanted him to know all the things we never to someone until they are gone. He was my inspiration. He was my mentor. He is the reason my life has taken the path it had taken. When I felt (or feel) less than confident about something, I remembered him and his words. I remembered how he knew me. And how he always had the right thing to say to put me in a role where I’d thrive or get me back on track. I was already in my late thirties, and I was writing my first book. I looked into his striking blue eyes, and said, “Thank you. You are the reason I am a writer today. I did other things in fun industries outside of theatre before becoming a mom and staying home to focus on children. But when it was time to focus on me, when it was time to ask myself if I could do anything I wanted to do, if I had the freedom to be me, who would that be, I thought of you, and said I will do what Scanlan believed I could do.”
I released my first novel in 2015. I only had his school email address. And he’d retired. I knew 2012 would be the last time I spoke to him. But, it’s funny…life…I said all the things I wanted to say to him. I gave him the credit he deserved, the credit I’d give him for so many years when speaking of my life to anyone but him. I told him he is the reason I believe in myself. And today, almost thirty years since graduating all of his classes, he is still my reason.
His spirit lives in everything I write – even if he would have torn it apart and challenged me to rewrite it.