37 years ago last week, I was a newly hired teacher at the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Within 24 hours, had it not been that fate and luck interceded in the form of a self-assured and winsome mother of a student, I might well have lost my job. As I begin my 38th year as a teacher, this guardian angel needs to be acknowledged for saving my educational career. Like most such stories, however, it was initially clothed in innocence and naivety.
In the fall of 1980, after three unfulfilling years as a reporter, advertiser, and retailer, I was offered a job as a co-teacher at my elementary school alma mater, the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The day before classes began, the school’s supportive Assistant Headmaster, Paul Schmidt, advised to me during our orientation meeting, “If you don’t know what to say to a child, Shaun, just think what your mother might say in the same situation.”
That seems easy enough, I thought at the time.
Thus, the next day at recess, when I went out for the first time to play Nerf football with my third grade class – I threw a spiral to a robust boy named Greg Hoffman, who was then subsequently tripped by another classmate. As I recall, the third-grader tumbled to the ground and then attempted to regain his feet. With literally no arsenal of experience behind me, and already swelling with gnawing apprehension, I remembered what my assistant headmaster had told me the day before. Consequently, I then tossed some motherly advice to the injured Greg so effortlessly that I figured it would instantly take care of the problem. The injured boy nodded, got up slowly, and limped back to the huddle.
Now my parents were classically “old school” and capably represented their much-venerated generation. Like virtually every father I knew growing up, Dad, who was born in 1913, had been tempered by war – in his case – the invasions of both Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima – while Mummie, born in 1920, had raised four children during the crux of the Nuclear Age. Ultimately, you didn’t want to disappoint such adults – that was the boundary we all danced around as children – and for that – our parents gave us an enormous berth. We could be gone for hours, and if we showed up on time for dinner, they never asked where we were. This kind of easygoing ambiance was encapsulated one September morning when, as I was quietly eating breakfast before school. Mom, who was sipping on her Sanka, glanced at me and asked, “Are you now in fourth or fifth grade, Dear?”
“Fifth grade, Mummie,” I replied.
“Good for you,” she replied.
If such adults could put most anything in perspective; employ an intoxicating mix of common sense and pragmatism; and believe that learning from mistakes was essential to a child growing up into a productive adult; then it was also true that my parents and their peers were as tough as nails. Indeed, virtually every one of my coaches growing up had either landed on Omaha Beach or had fought at Guadalcanal – even as many of their wives worked in the factories back home after having spent their childhoods enduring the Great Depression.
As tough as the men were, their wives were even tougher. In our particular neighborhood, such expressions as, “Suck it up – and tough it out;” “The world most certainly DOES NOT revolve around you!” – And, a personal favorite – “You are not special. Now Mozart and Shakespeare – they were special!” were among the many pronouncements we heard from our mothers in growing up.
Thus, later that day, when I heard that Greg Hoffman had been picked up by his mother and then taken to the doctor for X-rays, I became increasingly alarmed. Accordingly, I called my older brother that night, a young man who was already a seasoned administrator at a local private school. When I shared with him what my Tenacre assistant headmaster had advised me during orientation – that – when in doubt – tell a child what your mother might have said in the same situation – there was an extended pause on the phone. My brother sighed, “Let me take just one guess. You told Greg Hoffman to…. ‘walk it off.”
“Well, yes,” I mumbled.
“Nice job,” he replied, “Mummie would have told Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre to walk it off. Expect to be grilled at school tomorrow. This is not good.”
After a sleepless night….I arrived at Tenacre the next morning with dark circles under my eyes, and a copy of The Boston Globe’s Help Wanted Section in my right hand.
Five minutes later, as the cars streamed into Tenacre’s front entrance, I spotted a station wagon pull up in front of the school, and a cordon of students and teachers immediately encircle it. Out of the back right passenger side, I then caught a glimpse of two crutches followed by a solitary figure, who was not sporting the “modest little ankle wrap” I had prayed to see, but instead was encased entirely in plaster, the surface area of which exceeded the Shroud of Turin.
To complete the nightmare, Greg’s mother, Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman, emerged from the driver’s side of the car, scanned around like a hawk looking for its prey, saw me, and bellowed, “Shaun! Don’t move an inch! I need to talk to you!”
As she escorted Greg into the building – in a wheelchair – of course – I remained immobilized, awaiting my fate. Even Anthony Scaramucci lasted longer in the White House than I would have at the time. How could I possibly tell my parents that I had just been fired as a teacher after only one day on the job?
After spending five minutes in unremitting purgatory, Mrs. Hoffman marched out of Tenacre’s main building and walked briskly towards me. Not until I had read Stephen King’s The Green Mile would I again feel how profoundly terrifying it is when someone is waltzing toward you intent on strapping you into “Old Sparky.”
Seconds later, Mrs. Hoffman stopped in front of me, looked fiercely into my eyes, took a deep breath, and thundered, “Shaun…I just want to thank you for making sure that Greg doesn’t grow up to be a wimp!”
I almost fainted straight away, regrouped, and thought to myself, “Did she just say what I think she did?” Ultimately, I caught myself, stuck out my hand, smiled at her, shook Mrs. Hoffman’s profusely, and exclaimed, “It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Hoffman…..” For whatever reason, God had made sure that the one woman in the area like my mother happened to be Greg Hoffman’s parent.
That evening, at my parents’ house in Wellesley, I told my family what had happened earlier that morning. Mom, who, like John Irving’s memorable character, Owen Meany, forever spoke in capital letters, commented after hearing the story, “WELL OF COURSE MRS, HOFFMAN THANKED YOU, DEAR! WHAT ELSE COULD SHE POSSIBLY DO?”
Another guest at the table that night, my brother, looked at me with death-star eyes as I told the tale. My father looked at his milk glass and chuckled to himself while my mother asked for my opinion.
“You’re so right, Mummie,” I said while beaming at my sibling, who glared at me and whispered, “You are so damn lucky.”
37 years later, here I am still working in the classroom. Greg Hoffman is 45 years old, and a certain mother from Wellesley, Massachusetts remained my patron saint for almost four decades. While there are hundreds and hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and parents I need to thank for providing me with such a meaningful career over the years, there’s really only one person I am indebted to – Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman of Wellesley, Massachusetts.