Leaving a Mark

In a Northridge Elementary School resource room, Mark Jefka looked at the final position of the plastic chess pieces. Smiled. And offered our usual closing invocation.

“Well,” he said to me, “you win some, you lose some and some you get rained out of. But you gotta dress for every game.”

You do lose some. And now we’ve lost one of the best.

When I learned that Mr. Jefka died on Jan. 30, it hit like a shot to the childhood. So much of my mind bears his touch on it, the fingerprints of a caring, patient man.

Patient men don’t often leave glamorous obituaries behind. No matter. The love they leave behind surpasses any marquee, planting the seeds of changed lives and a better world.

Especially when they meet those lives young.

My classmates at Northridge sometimes asked what I did when I left class to spend time with Mr. Jefka. “Play games,” I told them and indeed we did. But it went deeper than that.

You see, Mr. Jefka was trained in special ed, working with students who needed some extra attention. And in grade school, that definitely included me. My childhood epilepsy had come with some other neurological issues that required me to work on very basic skills, such as spatial awareness, balance and coordination.

I received help with this outside of school, of course (and one helper who did so much remains a very dear friend today). But inside the Northridge resource room, it was me and Mr. Jefka. And often a game as well. Each one with a different lesson hidden inside it.

When we dealt the cards for Concentration, the prize was greater memory and attention.

When we set up the board for chess or checkers, we were building an ability to focus, study a situation and anticipate consequences.

A slightly noisier game called Bombs Away – one that involved looking through a sight to try to drop plastic skydivers into targets on a moving board – sharpened reflexes and worked on my sense of timing.

Yes, there were tests and other standard measures to see what kind of progress I was making. There always are. But it’s the games I remember best.

No, that’s not quite right. It’s the man behind the games I remember. Always calm. Always pleased with me, win or lose. And ever ready to show me how to take either result with a smile. (And sometimes a gentle chorus of “The party’s over …”)

If I’m ever half as patient with others as Mark Jefka was with me, then I’ll know I’ve done well. Even now, I wonder who I may have touched in return and how Mr. Jefka’s gift is being carried on.

We don’t often get to know. We’re shaped by so many people and we shape so many, but we don’t always get to see the later chapters of the story. We just have to keep reaching out in love and kindness, trusting that something we’ve planted is flowering somewhere, that the light from our candle may be kindling others.

Sometimes we learn, if we’re lucky. But whether we hear the stories or not, we have to keep writing them.

Because it’s not about fame or renown. It’s about that moment when a life is touched for the better. So many lives, so many places.

Thank you, Mr. Jefka. Thank you more than I can say.

You may have left these games behind. But I’ll always be grateful to carry your Mark.

Teacher, Teacher

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2013, congratulations.

You’ve done a lot to get this far. You’ve sweated over finals. You’ve dodged cars in the school parking lot and marveled at “snow days” that lacked even the smallest touch of white. You’ve even survived the ultimate indignity – the disclosure of your middle name in a graduation program to all and sundry. (“Hey! Guess who’s named Chauncey!”)

Before long, you’ll be on your way, far away from infinite loops of “Pomp and Circumstance” and commencement speakers who think quoting from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is an original idea. Some are bound for college. Some for the military. Some might not be thinking about anything beyond the great backyard party at Steve’s in a few hours. (Psst – bring the sunscreen, OK?)

It’s going to be interesting to see where you guys end up. I know it was for us. My own class has seen actors and cops, photographers and engineers, even some poor soul who thinks newspapers are still a good job opportunity. I don’t expect to see anything less here.

But I’ll dare to make one prediction now. Each and every one of you will be teachers.

What’s more, you always have been.

For me, it started early. I was about five when I helped teach one little sister how to read; by the time I was in college, I was editing papers for my other sister at weird o’clock in the morning, hours before they were due. In between were a lot of study sessions and book-cracking with friends and family alike. (To this day, I suspect one of my high-school friends will never forget how to pronounce Von Steuben.)

But it’s funny. As I look back, tutoring has been the smallest part of the teaching and learning I’ve done in a lifetime.

The fact is, we’re teaching at every moment.

Regular readers of this column remember my wife’s disabled aunt Missy, whom we care for. From her, over the past two years, I’ve learned patience, wonder, an appreciation for simple things and a slower pace. (I’ve also learned how to overcome bedtime resistance and early-morning waking-up grouchiness, but that’s another story.)

I’ve learned reliability and a certain odd sense of humor from my parents. I’ve learned tricks and habits, good and bad, from colleagues in the newsroom or on the stage. I’ve learned in hundreds of interviews and stories, often with amazement, what people are really capable of. Sometimes it’s led me to a little soul-searching of my own – if a grade-school student can rally a small army of folks behind Hurricane Katrina relief or a teenager from small-town Kansas can learn math well enough to be accepted by Yale, what might I be capable of that I’ve sold myself short on?

And what am I teaching now? Are they lessons I want others to learn?

Every action teaches something, sets an example for what we think is good, bad or irrelevant. That has consequences. Some of them you see in the headlines. Maybe a president, or a CEO, or an attorney general had nothing to do with a controversial decision that was made. But what tone did they set, what unspoken lesson did they teach by their own behavior and attitudes that told a subordinate “This is OK. Don’t worry about what you’re doing”?

Stephen Sondheim, as usual, had a word for it. (Actually, he usually had several words for it, interlaced with an intricate rhythm to a deceptively simple tune, but we won’t go there.) In his musical Into the Woods, he concluded the fairy-tale action with one simple reminder:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see – and learn.”

Careful. Not fearful. Not with anxiety or fret. But not without thought, either. Children are watching, and more than children.

School’s out. But class is in.

Teach well.