When you are young, the world before you is large and wide and open to all possibilities. You may only look back now and then searching for a touchstone, like an old friend or a special teacher. Youth prevents you from imagining that things do change and people (even YOU!) get older. It can take something out of the ordinary, an accident or a sobering bit of news to make you realize, "Huh? Oh, right. People get sick. They age. They face great hardships. That mainstay in my rear view mirror might not always be there."
I found out this past weekend that my favorite high school teacher, Jerry Hyler, is not well. He is at home with his wife and Hospice care is now part of their home life. Thanks to Facebook, I have stayed fairly current with his life, but this latest turn has caught me somewhat off guard.
Jerry was a business and accounting teacher, two subjects that I would never excel in, but he was also responsible for coaching our speech team. He started a team right before I entered high school and he continued recruiting until we grew very large for a school that boasted around 125 students. At one point, there were more people on our speech team than out for football, a major coup for a rural Iowa school.
I have to tell you that I loved Jerry when I was in high school. What made Jerry special to me was what made him special to everyone- he was kind and funny and he insisted on excellence. It's easy to insist on excellence, but it is much more difficult to attain. Jerry did this through his ability to build relationships with those he taught and coached. He used stories in his classroom- telling us about his escapades as a college student in Arizona, which sounded exotic to a group of Iowa teens. He told us of his marching band days and the trouble he got into and this made him human, which is something that students can struggle to grasp- their teachers are human and not put on earth to make their days miserable. With a question, a quirk of an eyebrow, or in a funny exchange, Jerry let you know he was listening, he cared, and, should you need him, he would be there to help.
I was typically insecure as a teen girl and speech gave me a way to channel my insecurity- his demanding ways gave me a positive way to fuel my need to prove I could find a way to make myself stand out, to be special. Speaking in public is not easy for many people, but he showed us that it could be done and done well if you just practiced, practiced, and practiced some more. And, strangely enough, it could become fun. My sister and younger brother and countless friends have similar Jerry experiences, each with their own little take on what he did for them. Without a doubt though, speech was a confidence booster to every single one of us.
I developed relationships with people I might not have otherwise because I worked with them in ensemble acting and larger groups. He not only asked us to stretch as performers but as people. Shy, nerdy, athletic, just plain weird. No one was immune to receiving an invitation to "just give it a try!" Everyone was welcome and in turn, we were required to welcome everyone. The real essence of that lesson did not become clear until I became a teacher myself. There is no greater need to belong than in high school. Good teachers find a way to make it so for every one of their students.
After I graduated, I started writing a bit more and I sent him something that I thought he could use for speech material, which he did use. I think of that piece now and I grimace. Yet I have to remind myself of the standards he had. He often saw things in potential material that others did not. He could take something that might seem bland to others and make it sing. He taught me to look in unexpected places--stories and poetry were everywhere if you paid attention. On the back of cereal boxes, in music lyrics, within children's stories and nursery rhymes, in fishing magazines. Jerry found stories and ideas in almost everything he read. As speakers, our job was to tell that story or read that poem in a way that compelled people to listen. No matter how many times we performed, he wanted to feel as if we were speaking and he was hearing it the very first first time.
"Keep it fresh!
"ZZZ!! What? Did you just say something? Make me want to listen!"
It could be exhausting and demanding and excruciating and rewarding.
It's hard to over-emphasize what an impact he made on my school experience. Multiply that times the hundreds of other students who graced his classes and practiced their lines within the confines of his classroom and it is clear that this man will not leave the planet having wasted any of his time on earth.
There is no greater gift than giving yourself completely to something you love. For part of his life, Jerry's love was his students and his quest for making us believe that we could become more than we thought we could be. Whatever journey Jerry is on now, I wish him peace and love and comfort and laughs. I wish him all the things he gave so freely to me and to so many young students during his time as a teacher and a speech coach. Above all, I want him to know how much he has mattered and that he will continue to affect the future because part of his story intersects with mine and I will always be happy to share it.