by David LaBelle
He grabbed my arm as I raced through the halls of Oak View Elementary, leaned down and brought his sculpted face so close I could smell his breath. His eyes burned and the long face contorted, as if in pain.
Mr. McPherson was my favorite teacher and I had never seen him so upset, at least not at me.
But it wasn’t anger.
He was disappointed that one of his best students, a chosen hall monitor, had violated the very rules he was charged to uphold.
This was a serious matter.
As he bent his tall frame over me – other kids in a hurry to play baseball or climb on monkey bars during recess – hurried past, hands stiff by their sides, trying to walk fast without running, without bending their knees. They looked at me the way one gawks at a speeder pulled over on the side of the highway, thankful it wasn’t them who got nabbed.
My teacher lectured me about citizenship and reminded me I had a responsibility to be a good example to other students. After all, I had been elected a hall monitor for that month. I wore a white cloth shoulder belt and safety badge to prove it.
I wanted be tough, act cool in front of other kids, but I felt the tears climbing. I hated that I had disappointed my favorite teacher.
He wore baggy wool pants, the kind Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck wore in those days, with a belt around wrapped his pretzel-thin waist, the way a rubber band pinches a sheet of waxed paper on a Mason jar lid. And he didn’t have much of a chest as I remember
This week, while sorting through stacks of files moved from my evacuated campus office, I came upon a hand-written letter from Mr. McPherson, my 5th grade teacher, sent to me while I was photo director at the Ventura County (CA) Star in the year 2000. I’d read the letter before, when I first received it, but gobbled the lines in a hurry, without tasting the flavor of each word.
I did write him back and thanked him, but realized this week I had never truly appreciated the letter.
This time, sitting alone on my porch, my eyes filled as I considered the care and craftsmanship of each line, each word, and savored each word, each line like marinated mushrooms. His words were from another time just as he was from another generation – the greatest generation according to Tom Brokaw’s book with the same name.
That he would take time to write such a letter is still humbling. Hand-written letters are treasures in this electronic age, and I cherish them as if maturing government bonds issued from another time.
Funny, I cannot recall the face of any of my grade school teachers, but Mr. McPherson’s face with the strong jaw, deep set eyes and high cheekbones is as clear in my mind as if I saw him yesterday. I wish I would have known back then what I know now about my teacher, that he was a wounded war hero. I don’t remember him ever mentioning it.
I wish he was still alive. I wish I could see him today and ask him the questions about his life I didn’t know to ask then, and him for what he had done for our country and for me.
And I’d like to tell him though it took me 60 years to understand what he was trying to teach me in that hallway – that citizenship and patriotism are more than putting my hand over my heart during the flag-raising before school.
Finally, I think understand.
His headstone reads:
James Francis McPherson
World War II
Dec 18, 1922
May 23, 2012
Purple Heart AM