When I was a senior in high school, I had a lead role in the school play; I also had an emergency appendectomy. The latter resulted in the stage manager/understudy performing in my place. She happened to be a girl whom I had been “best friends” with, but like many high school relationships, we had drifted apart. On opening night, I sat in the first row of metal folding chairs and watched, silently mouthing each word she spoke, words I had been memorizing for months.
My love for theater was cultivated by Mr. Brennan, an English teacher at my small, rural high school. When I took his AP English class, I saw a future for myself that I had previously thought impossible, so when I told him that I couldn’t even afford to apply to college, he made me go to the best counselor at the school, a colleague and good friend of his. There, I told her what I had been too ashamed to admit to anyone other than Mr. Brennan. I left her office with a fee waiver to apply to four SUNY schools and renewed hope.
I enrolled at SUNY Oneonta as a theater major. After all, Mr. Brennan made me believe I had a talent, so much so that I had given up cheerleading to be in his plays. From rehearsals to cast parties, we were a strange tribe of misfits, but I never felt more at home.
Later, when I became an English teacher myself– one that directed the musicals at the school where I taught– it was all thanks to him.
To complete observation hours for my undergraduate degree, I went straight to Mr. Brennan. I hadn’t stepped foot in my high school since graduation, but if I was going to be a teacher, I wanted to be Just. Like. Him. Watching him with his students, I longed to be back in his class, participating in the discussions, reading the books–Well, most of the books. I never could make it To The Lighthouse, no matter how many times I tried.
Between classes, Mr. Brennan listened to NPR from an old stereo. When one of his students spoke, he leaned in close and wagged his long finger when he approved of what they were saying. His classroom felt like a stage set as a well-loved living room, complete with worn-in couches.
One time, he confessed that when he arrived at work earlier than usual, a custodian was sleeping on the couch in his classroom. Whether the man was homeless or just didn’t want to go home, Mr. Brennan quietly slipped back out without waking the man, refusing to risk embarrassing him.
You see, it didn’t matter who you were, Mr. Brennan afforded everyone their dignity.
On October 26, I left my classroom to head home for the weekend. As I was walking to my car, I checked my phone and saw a post on Facebook that stopped me. At the age of 76, Mr. Brennan had passed away. Immediately, I was filled with a deep sadness.
There isn’t much I can say about Mr. Brennan that hasn’t already been said. In the wake of his passing, innumerable tributes have been written in his honor. Every story shared captures exactly the kind of man he was. To many, Mr. Brennan was an inspiration, and I am no different. What he did for me, he did for countless others: He made us believe we mattered.
That time when I had my appendix removed, Mr. Brennan came to see me in the hospital. I remember waking up to him standing at the foot of my bed. But I wasn’t special. An article that appeared in The Suffolk Times in honor of him told how, “when Liz Casey Searl’s brother died at only 21 years of age, Mr. Brennan showed up at the 1995 Mattituck graduate’s home to ask how he could help.”
He did that sort of thing…for all of us. He showed up. And by showing up, you knew he cared.
For my final Senior project, I recited a poem I’d written about my father’s alcoholism. When I looked up, Mr. Brennan had removed his glasses and was wiping tears from his cheeks. Whether words poured from our mouths or bled from our pens, he made us feel like what we had to say was worth hearing. He didn’t discredit us for being angsty teens with too many hormones and not enough pre-frontal cortex.
As I worked towards becoming a teacher, Mr. Brennan told me that I should never take any grading home. It took him many years to figure that out, but, he said, it was better to stay at work till 5 in the evening than to leave with a stack of papers in hand. In the 16 years I’ve been teaching, I wish I could say I have heeded that advice.
These days, I often stay at work till 5. I don’t teach in the small, rural town I grew up in where you can’t find a class with more than 25 students, and the expectations of teachers grow with each passing year. Yet at the end of the day, the most meaningful thing we can do in our classrooms is to build relationships with our students, to show them that they matter.
I might not be able to keep my weekends free from grading, but I can show my students that I care. Mr. Brennan’s passing has reminded me of that. In many ways, he’s still my teacher.
Mr. Brennan is remembered for his plaid flannels, his work boots, the mints he carried in his shirt pocket and sucked on throughout the day. He is remembered for the gas-station coffee he drank and for the way he laughed without making a noise. Head thrown back, mouth open wide, he found humor in so many of our adolescent antics.
When I graduated from high school, I drove to his home with a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In it, I had penned a heartfelt note. I no longer remember what I wrote, but I do remember the sentiment behind it. This was a man who had given me—had given all of us—so much, and he had asked for nothing in return. He gave us crowns to play king of the forest. He provided us with shade or a quiet place to sit. He was there for us as we grew. Even when we went off to start our lives, he remained. So much of what we needed was found in him.
I can only hope, that in giving us his all, he got something in return.
I can only hope that in the end, the tree was happy.