One life can touch so many others.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of weeks, since my Dad passed on earlier this month at the age of 93. He cared about the people around him, and as a result, he made a difference in the lives of many. This care extended far beyond family members and relatives.
One day, when I was in Grade 6 or Grade 7, Dad stopped at home after work and picked me up. In the back seat of the car was one of the students from the elementary school where he was teaching. The student was from out of town and needed a ride home. The round trip must have been 30 or 40 kilometres, but this was a way for Dad to help this student. And the drive back was also a time for Dad and me to spend a bit of time together. One student, one after-school drive. It was a small thing, but the memory has stuck with me.
One former student went on to become a novelist. Several years ago, in an interview with the Toronto Star, this student made special mention of being in Dad’s Grade 6 class and talked about memories that stood out from that year in school. When someone chooses to acknowledge and thank a Grade 6 teacher, in national media many decades later, that’s a high honour.
Another of his students went on to pursue his doctorate in political science. When he was in university, he told me he became interested in political science because Dad had made Grade 6 social studies interesting. That one year of school changed the course of this student’s life.
There were also letters from mothers of former students, thanking Dad for helping their children in the classroom. These were heartfelt letters of thanks after a student showed a noticeable improvement in school marks, behaviour or attitude. These notes meant a lot to Dad. He kept them in the same box of files he used for important financial and legal papers.
Later, after Dad retired from teaching, he continued to make a difference in the lives of people around him.
For a few summers after Dad retired, my parents worked with a small church in Cranberry Portage, Man. This was in the mid-1990s, but some in that community still remember their presence during those summers. And later, when they moved to Saskatoon, they continued to care about the people around them.
One moment that stands out for me came a few years ago, when I was visiting Dad in Saskatoon, and we went out for coffee together. At the coffee shop, everyone on staff and most of the customers knew Dad by name, and they were happy to see him. Often, Dad would bring a book he was reading or a notebook and sit at a corner table, reading or writing. It was only a matter of minutes before someone would pull up a chair and start talking with him. He was a presence — the unofficial chaplain of the coffee shop — and he was someone people could trust for advice, or more often, as a listening ear.
It would have been easy to put on a pot of coffee at home, and sit down in the living room with his book or notebook, but Dad enjoyed meeting with people, and being in the coffee shop was a good outing for him.
When that coffee shop participated in special fundraisers, they asked Dad to help pour coffee during the mornings. It was another way for him to interact with the people he knew, and loved, at this place.
People mattered to him. This wasn’t just a platitude. It was the reason behind some of the choices he made.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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