A note to my students upon the death of a great colleague

by Mr. Sheehy

To my students:

Yesterday, as you are well aware, I and hundreds of others (including some of you) paid respects and said good-bye to Mr. Doug Lefler. It was not an easy evening and I stayed up much later than usual trying to sort my thinking after absorbing such a jolt.

In trying to organize a cogent thought, I strayed to the beginning of the funeral and its setting. It was in the gym, and since I walked in later than my English department cronies I couldn’t find a place to sit with them, which was not a bad thing, because I do in fact like people from other departments. The spots reserved for the staff were a number of rows at the back of the floor’s seating (the gym’s floor was covered with probably 300 of the school’s red folding chairs). I ended up on the left side, sandwiched between Mrs. Rasmussen and Mrs. Mestad. Perhaps this spot amidst the computer and science departments’ crowned workaholics attuned me to the emotion I felt moments later. You see, I gazed into the bleachers and saw students, parents, and former employees of the district filing in to sit along the wings, and I then glanced back to my own setting and saw rows of red shirts filling that reserved section of privilege. Knowing I was a part of those red shirts triggered something somewhere in me–a sense of pride, I suppose.

Right away though I knew the pride was not a feeling of importance. It was in no way a thrill to have a seat or section reserved for me. The pride swelled from the association with such a group. “Yes,” I realized. “I am a member of the faculty at ‘Red’ High School in South Dakota.” It is a privilege to work on this staff.

Surely it is not like that everywhere, though. I know plenty of people who would not express pride to work where they do. I even know plenty of people who speak the name of their employer with a bit of reticence. From where, then, does this pride of mine originate? What makes it so?

The answer, I surmise, is that the privilege of working here derives from the quality of men and women like Mr. Lefler. It is people like Mr. Lefler who build reputations for the entire staff at ‘Red’ High School. Our privilege is to say that we are the colleagues of Mr. Lefler. That statement in itself glows with pride, and it glowed all 13 years Mr. Lefler taught here.

So then, as I slumped in my red, padded, folding chair before Mr. Lefler’s funeral, partially listening to Mrs. Rasmussen’s exchange with Mrs. Schwab, partially observing Mrs. Mestad’s attempts to collect her emotions, I found myself thinking that I am a grateful beneficiary of this man’s good work and reputation.

Now students know which teachers are buddies with which other teachers. It’s no secret, because you see us hanging out with one another and bugging each other. You know who Mr. Lefler’s close friends were, and you know I was not one of them. After all, this is a big giant school, and the English and Social Studies departements don’t intersect that much–aside from those two married couples, of course–and so I do not for a moment claim to have been tight with Mr. Lefler.

I do, however, appreciate what I knew of Mr. Lefler, even if I obtained what I knew through reputation and collegial interaction, not through significant personal contact. I knew him also from his pickup truck that he parked in the second spot in the faculty lot on the west end of the building. It seemed to me it was always there. I remember being told on one occasion last year that Mr. Lefler was in the hospital with pneumonia, again. Teachers were milling around with tears visibly poised to pour from their eyelids because they were convinced that he couldn’t battle off one more sickness. I was prepared for bad news, but as I walked out the doors the following day just before 5:00 and glanced up, that familiar white pickup was parked in its space. He was back again, “endeavoring to persevere.”

Four close colleagues and friends of Mr. Lefler’s spoke last night, describing Mr. Lefler’s personality, his attributes, and their love for him. I thought many things as I listened, but one I wanted to share with you. It was my realization when Mr. Templeton quoted Mr. Lefler’s declaration about teaching. Said Mr. Lefler, “I am working my dream job.”

You see, that’s why I saw that truck in that spot–at 5pm, one day out of the hospital, four years into a battle with multiple myeloma cancer– because he loved his job. He loved being a teacher.

Now I think it important to add that Mr. Lefler was not a one-sided man, and it was obvious from last night’s service how much he loved being a dad and a husband and friend. It’s just that right now, that’s not what I want to mention to you.

You see, I have had opportunities to do things other than teach, and at different times I have been tempted to do them. Before coming to teaching, I had set myself up for a career in radio broadcasting. With the technology skills I’ve sharpened, it’s feasible to consider stepping aside into some web development or consulting. Within education, I have had opportunities to apply for positions that would take me out of the classroom, teaching fellow teachers about technology and other kinds of things. I have even had it mentioned to me that I might be a good principal or assistant principal if I chose to pursue a master’s degree in administration, and I can say with honesty that the more than double salary that would come with that job makes it tempting to consider.

But I’ve shied away from those things for one reason or another, mostly because I never felt like they were right.

And I want you to know that when I heard Mr. Templeton quote Mr. Lefler, I knew Mr. Lefler was right. Teaching is the dream job. I want you to know that the pride I felt at being a part of the red-shirted floor crowd was a pride not only in being a part of the Cobbler community, but in being a teacher in that Cobbler community–the same community that has earned much of its good reputation from the fine work of Mr. Lefler.

Today, the day after saying good-bye to Mr. Lefler, the thing I want to say to you, my students, is that I have never felt more privileged, or blessed, than I do today at being a teacher–your teacher, here, at ‘Red’ High School.

Sincerely,

Mr. Sheehy

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