Like strong support of an argument, good mentors come in threes.
By John Paulett
Perhaps it is a bit of nostalgia. It has been almost 50 years since I graduated from high school. That is enough time to make things appear better than they were. But when I remember the teachers that had the greatest effect on me, I am pretty sure my memories are something more than nostalgia. There were some giants in my classrooms — teachers who changed many lives, including mine.
I went to St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The experiences were the same, I think, for students at Fenwick, Trinity, De La Salle, Leo, Mother McAuley and so many great Catholic schools with so many great educators. Three teachers come immediately to my mind.
When I am writing or speaking today, I always form my arguments into a group of three. That comes from Father Miday, an imposing Jesuit who taught Senior English. I once answered a question he posed with just two proofs. He stared at me and his body seemed to rise up until it filled the front of the room. With a voice that rumbled from the floorboards, he said, “Do not triangles have three sides? Are not the ancient pyramids made of threes? Why, God himself! Is God not a three? And yet, young Mister Paulett has asked us to accept his argument with only two arguments.” The word “two” withered. It turned as it fell to the ground in a lonely death. I have never since tried to support a claim with less than three arguments.
I was not a football player but I knew and admired Coach John Wirtz as much as any Ignatius man. He had been at the school for many, many years. The Coach had a list of sayings, motivational phrases, I suppose, that he had mimeographed and distributed through Freshman Religion classes. We were told to memorize the adages. When Coach Wirtz met a student in the hall (not just a football player–any student), he would check on how well we had learned the lessons.
“How are you in victory, son?”
“And in defeat?”
“How do you come to the field?”
“And how do you leave a place?”
“Better than I found it.”
“How do you leave people?”
“Better than I found them.”
“Good job, young man.”
I am not sure I can recite the entire list today but I have not forgotten many. When I am cleaning up a room after a meeting or event, I always think that I should leave it better than I found it. When I go to a meeting, I still remember that the only way to come to the field is prepared.
And then there was William A. Murphy, WAM we called him or Murph. He taught speech from his motorized wheelchair. Bill had polio in the 1950s and breathed with the help of an artificial diaphragm. He was frail man physically. All of his strength was in his character.
We were giving public speeches. The student before me had a speech impediment and dreaded giving a speech in front of the class. He struggled through it with starts and stops. We didn’t understand much of what he said. WAM praised him and suggested all of us could learn from this fine speaker. I didn’t give much thought to that as I went up to give my speech. I was a member of the debate team. Public speaking was my thing. I gave what I thought was a fine, if shallow, speech. Before I had even returned to my desk, Murph was already yelling about how terrible my speech was and what an embarrassment I was to the proud history of St. Ignatius. He went on and on. I lacked thought and depth. My delivery was lifeless. My speech had been without any redeeming qualities, or so it seemed.
After class, I went to see him. “You were pretty rough on me, Mr. Murphy,” I remember saying.
“You know your problem, Paulett?” Murphy said. “You are talented and you think that, in some way, you earned your talent. You had nothing to do with it. You can speak pretty well and you are fairly smart. Those are gifts. Someone gave them to you. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I really didn’t.
“You will get by a lot of things with some talent, but you show me a man who is willing to put his full efforts into his work and I will show you a real success. Someday, if you want to actually work to make use of your talent, come back and see me. I will say something nice to you.”
I did not know what he was saying. I didn’t fully understand it for a few years. I think I do now. As I have grown older, I have thought a lot about gratitude and gifts and what it takes to really make use of them in a way that helps others. And when I think about it, I still hear Murph.
I carry all of their lessons with me today. It set me to wondering about other people and their experiences. Did you have a teacher who had a great influence on you? I would like to invite you to use the Comment Section of this blog (scroll down, please) to tell us the story of a woman or man who made a difference in your life. They might be teachers from Fenwick or from anywhere you went to school. I look forward to reading your stories.
Fenwick Speech Teacher Andy “Daddy” Arellano has had a big impact on student over the years.
Like Mr. Murphy at St. Ignatius/Cleveland, Fenwick Alumnus Bill Jenks ’50 was a polio victim — and nonetheless inspiring.
About the Author
Mr. Paulett teaches Expressive Arts and Moral Theology at Fenwick; he also is the school’s Photography Club moderator. A native of Ohio, John attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, then earned a B.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He also holds an M.A. degree in Theology from Felician College, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and is currently pursuing post-graduate work in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. In 2013, Mr. Paulett was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Education. He has also been recognized as “Heart of the School” by the Archdiocese of Chicago. John “moonlights” as an Adjunct Professor, National Louis University in Chicago. Outside the classroom, the versatile Mr. Paulett has published histories of Chicago, a book on prayer and spirituality, and several plays (“Lost Chicago,” “Forgotten Chicago,” “Printers Row,” “Pentecost,” and “Peanuts, Popcorn and Prayer”). He also is an actor, appearing on stage and in film, including the award-winning short film “The European Kid.”