By Graham "GSM" Matthews
It's been a solid eight months since my last "Injection of Inspiration" blog post. I've been on my own case for months about catching up (and trust me, I will eventually). I've had "Write IOI posts" at the top of my "To Do" list on my iPhone for months, but nothing ever motivated me to write them. Or at least, I never felt a sense of urgency to write them and catch up, until now.
It's interesting. I came back to my college campus a little over one week ago for the second semester of my junior year (amazing to think how fast time has gone by; feels like just yesterday I was preparing to leave for the first semester of my college career!). I started brainstorming potential topics for the "Injection of Inspiration" blog, and one of the first things that came to mind was discussing the importance of a great teacher. That theme is more appropriate now more than ever.
I've made it quite clear in past posts I didn't like high school, but I've always pointed out that it wasn't high school itself that I didn't like; it was simply the atmosphere and the kids I went to school with. I didn't mind the work at all, and I still don't even in college, but in all honesty, I'm typically not fond of people my age i.e. my peers. I'll just say there are a lot of immature people out there. In fact, by the time I finished high school, I noticed I would miss the teachers more than I would my own classmates. College has been no different.
I had my fair share of great teachers throughout high school. Kids constantly complain about having difficult teachers, but I tried to stray away from doing that because they were doing their job, what they were told. Even the hardest teacher I ever had in high school (my 11th grade chemistry teacher), I came to know him as a "pretty chill dude" after I had finished his class. The one and only time I went back to my high school post-graduation to see an old teacher of mine (who I'll discuss more in a second), I walked by his classroom, saw him inside and said hello. He asked how everything was and I told him I was doing very well. Mind you, almost exactly one year prior, he asked me when I was graduating, I told him that year, and he wished me good luck and knew I would do well. Funny how that works, right?
My science teacher freshman year was also awesome. Okay, maybe not as a teacher (it took him almost a month to grade one of my tests one time), but he was a great guy. I didn't like him for the first few months because of the aforementioned incident (I even wrote in a Facebook status that he "ruined my Christmas" that year), but we bonded after the principal came in to class one day and I told her how riveting of a class it was. He overheard what I was saying and said he owed me one after that. Not a day passed that we didn't talk about that occurrence. What made it cooler was that his classroom was located right next to my locker, so I saw him every day up until graduation. Shaking his hand and almost a shedding a tear at graduation was bittersweet to say the least.
And then there was my Civic Issues teacher I had in my senior year. I liked him from the first class, but the best part was that he, too, was a wrestling fan! You can check out the full story in a video blog of mine from two years ago, but in short, he was pretty much the coolest teacher I ever had in high school. Since he was my last class of the day, I would stay after class and talk all the latest happenings in wrestling with him. Taking a picture with him at graduation and catching up a little less than a year later was really cool as well.
But I guess I should get to the subject of whom this post is dedicated to: Jeffrey Kelly.
I signed up for a class my first semester of sophomore year of college called Intro to Creative Writing. Needless to say, I love writing, and while I don't do creative writing professionally like I do with wrestling, it is something I do enjoy doing from time to time. As soon as I walked in the room for the first class with Prof. Kelly, I was intimidated by his presence. As soon as he started telling stories, however, all that fear went away and I immediately became a fan of his.
Essentially, that's all the class was: him telling stories. And stellar stories at that. One involved him going on vacation as a kid and trying to dodge a deadly spider in his hotel room. Another involved an old girlfriend he had whose house he went over for dinner and the date went to hell. Just really engaging stuff that I found myself relating to. He was almost like an older version of me, and I could tell because one our first stories had to be about romance. When I handed in the paper, I was nervous he wouldn't like it because I'm positive it was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Two days later, he gave it back, and with my heartbeat racing, I turned over the paper to discover I received an A+ on the assignment. I was ecstatic! It was one of my proudest moments because I put a lot of work into that story (100% truth, by the way) and even posted a picture of it online (as photographed above)!
After class, I sat in the cafe area outside the classroom, looking my paper over to see what he had to say about it with a giant smile on my face. Then I looked up and saw him walking my way with a stern look on his face as he always did, presumably on his way out to his car in the parking lot. I piped up and said, "Thanks for the kind words on my paper." "You're welcome," he responded. "You're a great writer."
We had an ongoing friendship from that point forward. I call his class a "class" but that word doesn't do it justice. Not only was it enjoyable, I actually looked forward to 3:30 every Tuesday and Thursday. And no matter how many times he said he loved my work, I would always get nervous handing work in, worried he would hate it. I never got anything lower than a B on the assignments I handed in for his class.
It went beyond the classroom. On those Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would go that aforementioned cafe in the mornings to get breakfast (something I still do to this day). And every Tuesday and Thursday mornings, he would be sitting there on the couch with a paper in his hand. At first, I was afraid to approach him because I was intimidated, but once we broke that barrier, I went up to him almost every time I was there, asking him how his weekend went, how much I loved his stories, etc.
Even after the class ended, we still kept in contact. He wasn't at the cafe anymore in the mornings due to the class schedules, but whenever I was in the library to pass out the weekly newspaper, I would always spot him in the same spot. He would see me, get up, say hi, grab a paper and go back to his chair. Almost like clockwork. I even interviewed him for a professor profile in the paper, something I'm beyond happy I did because it allowed me to sit down with him for a half hour and get his life story. An sensational life story at that.
I always walked away from our interactions with a smile on my face, which is rare. I know, I know, that sounds strange, especially considering I see myself as a positive person, but I don't generally smile all the time, specifically in the presence of peers. But anyone who can make me laugh and/or smile is truly deserving of my respect and friendship, and he succeeded at doing that every time we talked.
He was super appreciative that I interviewed him and even said he would send copies of the paper to his "jealous" friends as he said in his email. His face lit up when I gave him the paper and he saw his feature in the paper. It was probably one of the best pieces I have ever written for my school newspaper (you can read it here).
At the end of every semester, I toss all the notebooks and all the folders from each class, basically anything I deem useless. The folder from that Creative Writing class remains in my desk. Every assignment. Every graded paper. Every story.
I shouldn't have been surprised by his incredible ability to tell stories since he wrote several children books before arriving at Endicott College as a professor. Simply everything about him fascinated me to no end. A few things he said and did have stuck with him over the last year and a half. First, he said to never, ever, ever use the phrase "The fact that..." in my papers, something I haven't done since. Second, he made it a goal of his in college to not have a girlfriend until at least after graduation so he could focus on his work and sports and whatnot, which I greatly admired. Finally, he was never shy to tell me I would be a professional writer someday. That meant a lot, and I mean a lot, coming from someone as established and as credible as him.
The last time we talked was back in September. I found out this past Tuesday during a newspaper meeting he passed away of natural causes the weekend we returned to campus.
He told me during my sit-down interview with him that he had inspirational teachers growing up, which is funny because he inspired me. Inspired me as a teacher, as a storyteller, and as a person. He wasn't a wrestling fan. He was the farthest thing from being a fan of pro wrestling. But he understood and realized my passion, and believed in my abilities when few others did. My goal has been and always will to one day publish a book, and that desire is now stronger than ever thanks to him.
Don't hesitate to reach out to a teacher, past or present, who influenced you in any way, they will appreciate it more than you know.
If I can make the half of the impact on people that he had on me, only then will I consider myself successful. Rest in power, Prof. Kelly.
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