Maybe it’s all just relative and every generation has its challenges. Still, it’s difficult to explain all the complexities that accompany the average day in the halls of today’s high school -- the academic pressure to succeed in a highly competitive world, the social tensions around relationships that seem (at our age) to be the ‘end-all’ of life, and just the basic elements of the maturation process with all its ups and downs.
To be sure, some handle these tensions better than others. Some self-medicate or don’t care at all. Some barely make it while others over achieve in every area. For me, well, I’m one of the complicated ones -- always worried about everything -- all of it! That’s why I’m so grateful for the teachers and administrators that pour some parts of themselves into the lives of their students every day.
Some teachers just stick to the lesson plan, trying their best to prepare us with academic rigor for success in the global economy - and that’s important and I’m grateful for them. But others are simultaneously teaching about the equally important parts of life and how to survive it. That’s what this story is about; it’s about that teacher -- Rod Durham.
In my junior year of high school, I did not want to get out of bed. I felt like I had very few real friends (though I now know there may have been more than I thought). I gave off a persona as if I didn’t care, but Durham read right through me, and Durham did care. He made me feel valued.
He was the reason that I kept getting out of bed. When I didn’t want to get up at 6 a.m. every day, he was the one who inspired me and pushed me to get through it. More than that, Durham inspired me to be my true self. This is a slogan he lives by. “Always work hard, and be your true self.”
So, I took his advice. I began to dig deep and I tried to find the real me. After playing both baseball and football for almost all of my childhood, I never thought that I would end up on a stage in front of 800 people in the high school auditorium. I was supposed to be Buster Posey or Jameis Winston. I was supposed to be a star on the field, not on the stage.
That was all before I walked into room 222, Mr. Durham’s 11th grade English class. All over the school, Mr. Durham was popular and seen as “bigger than life” with a huge smile, infectious laugh and a real talk non-nonsense approach. From the moment I looked into the man’s twinkling eyes, I knew we had a connection. It was almost kind of weird. In him I saw little parts of me, and in me he saw little parts of himself.
To be sure, Durham made every kid feel special. He knew everyone by his or her name, and if you let him listen, he wanted to know more. Fortunately I was one of the lucky ones because he eventually became my mentor and best friend. There was a small group of us he called his “crew” -- and while he taught us a lot about English and Creative Writing and Theatre, he taught us more about living.
The view from room 222 was focused through the lenses of Rod Durham’s sage advice; he helped us see things a little more clearly, he challenged us to “do the right thing” and to pursue our own unique gifts and passions. And, if you came in there with any negative energy oozing out -- he’d literally get our a can of Lysol and start spraying it, saying “get that stink outta here!” Meaning, ‘come on, get ahold of yourself, look at the bright side’.
I don’t think this man ever had anything bad to say about anyone, at least not with the intention of hurting them. He had a way with his words and using them to uplift his students. He had a nickname for every student, all of whom were his favorites. He had a knack for getting kids out of their shell, allowing them to be themselves. He wanted his students to act as who they are, not the way the rest of the high school perceived them. He should have been a counselor and he could have been a lot of things, but he chose to teach.
I’m sure a lot of teachers wish they could run their classroom any which way they wanted. Well, they aren’t supposed to do that, and Durham did it anyway. Durham bent the rules because he wanted his students to learn about life, not just how to succeed academically. Learning course content is one thing - but learning about life - that is another.
That is what made Mr. Durham so great. He was there for the 14-18 year-old kids, who at that time in life, really needed someone. To relate to them, he would even blare Beyonce or Selena Gomez out loud, in class. Well that is what made a man like Durham so special. That is why I kept him so close to my heart. Teenagers don’t always relate well to their parents; many times this man filled the void. He just simply related to me. We just got each other on a whole different level. He helped me understand I just needed to be “me” regardless.
Durham gave me that opportunity to be myself. I could walk into room 222 with no shame, no guilt (even when I messed up, which I did - often) and I knew I’d feel better about life just by being around him. That is the toughest part about losing this jovial man with a grin bigger than Tallahassee and a personality larger than life.
I'm now in college, and and he is still a part of my life. He is the inner voice telling me to “go for it” and the gentle guiding voice, saying “yea, son, you messed up, but it’s ok, do it right the next time.” There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of him.
When I moved away to Pensacola for school, I didn't think that I would make it. I felt like I was done for. Well, Rod has a bigger presence in my life now than he had when he was here on this earth. I am writing this because I am so thankful for him. He got me through high school, and my first semester of college. I conclude my last class before thanksgiving tomorrow with this speech. The one about how this man changed my life.