An English Teacher + A 90-year-old Uncle + A Yearbook = a Renewed Purpose in Life

Here’s a sweet blog entry by Jim Burke, an English teacher, about a dinner where his wife’s 90-year-old uncle brings his yearbook and shares the stories from his past:

The Way We Were: High School 1938

All evening over dinner, conversation with my wife’s 90-year-old uncle Joe, who brought his high school year book: class of ’38. Used horse-drawn plows to clear the land on which they built the high school my sons, the fifth generation of my wife’s family to live in this house, now attend seventy years later.

Looking at the photographs: America. 1938. A war approaching. Joe fought at Battle of the Bulge. Utah Beach. Another era, a different world. Seems so innocent. All the kids in the photos dressed up, looking like forty-year-old insurance salesmen and housewives. Dinner is served with a healthy assortment of stories from my wife’s mother (who lives with us) and her uncle.

Sitting at the table: my two sons, a junior and a freshman at the same school. They look so different from those kids in the photos taken back when you could tell all the kids to dress in a suit (and they had one), take the event seriously. Every photograph in there from seventy years ago has a note and a signature. Now my kids just think: I don’t want a yearbook; I have Facebook.

The yearbook is filled with the faces of men Uncle Joe fought with, some of whom returned to open Wirth’s bakery down the street or the market; others did not return but died over there. He can point out every one of them even though Joe is ninety. He tells the stories like they happened yesterday, a mind sharp with the details.

Difficult to hold both worlds in my hands, that of my sons and that of Joe, both set in the same place, 70 years apart. And yet as he looks through the yearbook, tells the stories, what comes most to mind? Teachers. He looks at one, calls to mind all sorts of details, the way she talked, her handwriting, her lessons. And so it goes with one teacher after another. After 70 years.

This is what we become–characters in stories our students’ lives become–and is that such a bad fate?


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