I truly believe that you can and do learn from most every instance of this life that you actually pay attention to. My learning experience takes place in the spring semester of my last year of teaching in Maryland. During this time, I was acquaintances with an old janitor named Mr. Beachy. Mr. Beachy was a very small, bald man with a slight speech impediment and a knack for dropping by to talk about life whenever he could. However, in the winter of that same school year, Mr. Beachy was admitted to the hospital and almost died of undisclosed complications with old age. It was after this period of time that he returned and told me very conversationally that since his near death experience, that he now could see angels. The first of these angels, he said, came into his room right after the surgery and she was dressed in a white coat… I told him it was probably just his nurse. He didn’t seem to agree with me. So, it was at this point, that I thought Mr. Beachy had basically reached the spot in his life that had morphed him into a sort of loveable nutcase. Still, at that moment, little did I know that this crazy man who had pushed a broom down those hallways for years, without anyone paying attention, was just about to teach me a lesson about life that would stick with me forever.
However, to understand the full scope of this tale, you first have to realize what was happening in my life. Therefore, I have appropriately entitled the next section the Back Story, aka It Sure is Lonely Atop Negro Mountain. This title is fitting for a couple of reasons: 1) this is the back story, 2) the place I was teaching in was a remote, Podunk town called Accident, MD, and 3) I was living in Grantsville, MD a place located at the top of a mountain actually named Negro Mountain. I am also fully aware that this title is probably both humorous to you, mildly offensive, and completely politically incorrect, but if you keep these three things in mind, you will be mentally prepared to journey inside my time at Northern Garrett High School.
In my tenure at NHS, it seemed that as much as Mr. Beachy was ignored by the resident population, I was not. I was sort of a Garrett County anomaly, to wrap a huge story into a few concise words. They did not understand me, nor did they try. I wore different clothes, talked differently, I was a man who taught Theatre and I was straight (gasp!), and my students referred to me as their family, not their teacher. I had invested everything I had into teaching, and I was awarded with a dynamic relationship with my students and their parents, but for my good dead, I was hated and reprimanded every step of the way by administration. For the first time in my life, I had become a patriot, fighting for a just cause, and all the while being fully convinced that my enemies would eventually see my sincere intensions and come over to my side.
Like so many people in this world, work had become my life and work was not pleasant, therefore, life became less pleasant. Then Snowmageddon happened, and trapped the mountainous Garrett County in with so much snow that we were jumping off our rooftops into snow banks taller than a house. For three weeks straight we had no school, I sat in my apartment, I grew a beard, I started watching lots and lots of Netflix, and for the first time ever in my life, I paralleled the Unabomber, and it was not pretty. I became defeated, depressed, and trapped. Eventually, the snow did melt (We still had snow flurries all the way through the end of May), and we did get back to work, and I still had to put on one last grand finale of a spring musical before I closed this chapter of my life.
It was during one of these many late night practices for the spring musical that I was returning to my classroom alone, exhausted. It had been another day in which I was so busy I didn’t even look around to notice or talk about much other than the many tasks I had at hand. That is when I ran into Mr. Beachy, sweeping the hallway, by himself, as usual. I simply gave him a generic, “Hey there, Mr. Beachy,” and followed it up with some stock conversation reel that I had played out a million pointless times before. As I turned, tired and ready to my classroom, to my home, Mr. Beachy stopped me in my tracks by making the comment, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you have an uncle or someone who was a little Jewy?” Being as that I had already agreed to let Mr. Beachy in my life a the lovable nutcase and being that I was in the Mecca of politically incorrect banter, see previous comments about Negro Mountain, I probably wasn’t as thrown off by this comment as I should have been. I simply took it in stride and turned laughing to say, “No, why?”
“Oh, just wonderin’, because that is what your angel looks like, and he is standing behind you right now,” he continued.
To say the rest of this conversation didn’t and doesn’t still give me cold chills would be a lie. I am not sure if it was the lack of sleep, the overload of work, or just being the only people in a school hallway talking about the afterlifethat made my hair stand on end, but it did. Still, I quickly tried to ignore the off kilter comment and began retreating to my cocoon of daily pattern. I simply chuckled again, said thank you, and started back towards my classroom again. It was then that I heard something that dumbfounded me that day and is still on the tip of my brain today. Mr. Beachy simply concluded with, “I just wanted you to know that, because the next time you feel alone in this world, just remember, you are not alone.”
I turned just in time to look him dead in his very sincere eyes. Here he was, this little crazy old janitor with a broom in his hand and a song on his lips before I even realized how much I needed to hear something like that in my life. He smiled at me and said, “You have a good night, my friend,” and he went sweeping down the stairwell.
The last time I checked, Mr. Beachy was still sweeping the halls of Northern Garrett High School, and, as he was that day, I can’t help but assume that he smiling with that same boyish, wide eyed optimism he always gave those who paid attention to him. Whether or not there was actually an angel behind me that day, watching me, helping me accomplish more than I ever thought I could have, I am not sure, but it is my belief that that was not what I learned from that moment. As I sank into my classroom’s swivel chair that evening, I took a deep breath, gazed off into the blackness that filled the world outside my window, and for the first time in a long time, I realized that there was more to this life than just me.
As I walked through the parking lot that evening, the stars danced on the canvas of the sky and the wind was warm. Soon it would be summer, and the page had begun to turn.