|Mr. Lesley & me at a high school reunion|
Many people can tell you about the teacher that inspired them to learn. I grew up in a college town and was blessed with many excellent teachers, so if you'd asked me to name my best teacher, I probably wouldn't have said Mr. Lesley. You see, Jerry Lesley was a lot of fun. So much fun that I didn't realize how much I was learning. Over the years, I've probably recalled more from his classes than any other.
Jerry Lesley found a way to touch the lives of each and every one of his students. When he looked out across the classroom he didn't see a group of students. He saw a room full of individuals, and he made an effort to get to know each of us. In his class, he teased anyone and everyone, but it was the kind of teasing that other teachers only did with the very popular kids. Social status disappeared, and we saw each other in the light of acceptance that Mr. Lesley cast over each of us. Because of this, Mr. Lesley gave me, and many others, a special gift, self-esteem and self-confidence. For the first time in my life, my teacher saw a person, not just a quiet kid who made good grades.
Because he treated us so well, he could get away with things that other teachers probably wouldn't dare try. For example, our junior high required students to carry a large, laminated pass if you needed to leave class to go to the restroom. Because adolescents didn't want to be seen with this embarrasing symbol, students folded it and stuffed it into their pockets. Over time, the passes fell apart or mysteriously disappeared. With his usual smile, Mr. Lesley solved that problem. He asked the wood shop to make a miniature wooden toilet seat. It was too large to stuff in a pocket, so fewer people left his class to use the restroom, and if you did, you just laughed about it
I'll never forget my first day in Mr. Lesley's eighth grade history class. He took one look at me and asked, "Do you play basketball?"
I blinked in surprise. That was a first. No one ever asked me about sports. I said, "No."
I was above average in height at the time, and I could dribble and sometimes makes a basket, but I never considered myself a basketball player. Mr. Lesley never convinced me to try out for the team, but I did run on his track team in high school.
In our ninth grade Civics class, Mr. Lesley announced his idea for us to enact a mock murder trial. We cast ballots to select a murderer from our classmates. For some reason I wanted to be the murderer, so I told my friends to vote for me, but someone else won that election. The rest of us who received votes became witnesses. Mr. Lesley took each witness into the hallway to give us our story. I'll never forget the sparkle in his eyes when he told me that I was really the murderer! He knew how much I would love the mystery.
Outside of the classroom, Mr. Lesley made his presence known. He wandered the halls before and after class and talked and joked with the students. While monitoring the locker room, he wandered up to a friend of mine and me and pointed to a large spot on the floor. "Did you do that?" he asked with his typical big grin. Of course, he expected me to say no, but the problem was that I had actually done that a few months earlier when I brought a jar of paint to wood shop to paint a book shelf. I dropped the jar and well...The surprise on his face was hilarious.
Six years ago, my father died, and I only cried once during the visitation--when Mr. Lesley walked through the door. I can't begin to tell you what it meant to me see him standing there. I had thought about him many times over the years. As an adult, I realized that Mr. Lesley taught me more about myself than any other teacher in my youth and beyond that he gave me the gift of confidence. To see him there told me that he really did care about me. He was a rare man among teachers. One who took the job seriously while not taking himself too seriously. I think that was his secret because he didn't let us take ourselves too seriously either. That's an incredible talent! How many people do you know who can keep adolescents focused AND giggling?
God bless you, Mr. Lesley. You lived a powerful life giving confidence and self-esteem and laughter to teenagers.