I had a history teacher in high school who’d never seen a cloudy day. And by that I mean Chris Prewitt never perceived one to be that way. He’d say, That’s alright buddy, you can turn it in next week. Just make sure you know it by our test next Wednesday. And you’d say, Thank you, in a subdued voice, not because you were ashamed, but because he’d inspired you and you didn’t ask for it.
He was partially deaf, so he spoke quite strangely, like his tongue was forever caught by some creature hiding behind his teeth. But no one ever laughed or commented. We couldn’t take back our respect, or our gratitude.
Somehow he smiled every day, an action he couldn’t seem to control. His mouth would stretch, as if the amount of things to appreciate overwhelmed him.
He valued his students, the ones praised by newspapers, and the ones overlooked by the politics of adults. You could tell by how he was patient with them, how he never hurried to get home. He never abandoned them, nor did he simply enable them. When he gave someone a second chance, they took it, and followed through like they never had.
In the morning, he’d scan the room from his podium, looking awake without caffeine, inspired without our inspiration. And when he looked at you, I mean really looked at you for everything you were, it was as if he knew you hadn’t made the soccer team, or that dad hadn’t come home again, that mom had lost her job. He would try to console you with this look, filled with just the right amount of compassion to avoid embarrassing you.
On Mondays at 8AM, he’d take in our bored faces, his head high, hair poised, his eyes and mouth eager, ready for the futility, knowing that something he said would sink in, eventually. He’d watch as Richie would look for the homework he didn’t do, and overlook Trevor who’d tap my shoulder asking for the answers he’d forgot to write down. Jake would drop his pimple scarred chin into his chest to catch a few minutes of sleep before I’d wake him. In the corner by the door, Stevie would tell Richie where he was gonna smoke after school, then give Gabby a hard time about her cleavage, shooting paper through the rim of her tank top.
He’d start his lesson, and never relent in his efforts to uncover whatevercuriositywemayhavehadaboutpostWorldWarOnenegotiations, or Hoover’s New Deal. Martin would stroll through the door in the middle of Mr. Prewitt’s slide on Japanese internment, fifteen minutes late. Good morning Martin, welcome to class, he’d say.
Sorry Mr. Prewitt, lots of traffic. Martin would say for the hundredth time.
Just open your book to page 147 and we’ll pick right up again buddy. Mr Prewitt would answer, his voice like a melody.
As the class would saunter through the door, drawn by the bell, he’d stay standing, ready for questions about the lesson, about himself, about yourself. I’d ask him about playing water polo and planting trees, and when I began to leave he’d tell me I was doing good work this semester. I’d say, Thank you, and before I’d leave he’d say, Make it a great day.
Two years later we passed each other in the hallway. I hadn’t talked to him since our class together had ended, so I was expecting to stay our paths with nothing more than a smile. But, he remembered my name. Turning around and slowly walking backwards he asked me if I was ready for college, and I said I wasn’t sure, but that I was excited. He wished me luck, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky about something, like he’d taken a bit of his luck and willed it into my body.
The next year while I was at college a friend told me that Mr. Prewitt had been killed by a drugged out driver as he was jogging home.
You never know how to respond to these things at first, so you wait until it’s quiet, when your homework is done and the people that mattered begin to waft across your eyes, previously hidden by the distractions of life. It’s then that you grieve for him, for all the memories that have slipped away over the years.
At the trial his wife forgave the killer, and so did his sister, both confident that that is what Chris would have done. Given some of his forgiveness to her, so she could forgive herself.
Maybe there is only so much one can give.
Devin Kelly was an English Major at Santa Clara University, Class of 2017. As he wrote of himself, “I enjoy space, nature, ice cream, deep talks, friends, nice tunes and being lost. I like to keep an open mind and talk when I have something valuable to say, not just for the sake of saying something. I believe in the plan of the universe and never becoming someone I wasn’t born to be.” Devin Kelly passed away in March 2017, but he blessed all his friends with intelligent conversations and the privilege of knowing such a wonderful human.