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.

Always Elizabeth

Every so often, we like to joke about famous figures who seem eternal. It used to be George Burns. Then Betty White. And of course, there’s Keith Richards, who looks about 3,000 years old despite an actual age that’s closer to 750.

And then there’s the Queen. Or there was.

After her recent passing, a friend pointed out that most of us had never known a world that didn’t have Queen Elizabeth II in it. Granted, that could be said about almost anyone from the ever-smaller World War II generation. But with a presence as well-known as hers, it was a little like learning that the Big Ben clock tower had suddenly vanished. Distant and faraway, with no real impact on my day-to-day life, and yet somehow … one more constant that was gone.

I wonder what Grandma Elsie and Granddad Bill would have said.

My grandparents, like my wife’s grandmother, were English. Elsie and Bill came to this country in 1957, when QE2 was still very new indeed. Granddad had even seen her close up as a young girl in the 1930s during his brief tenure in the Grenadier Guards – yes, the guys with those wonderful hats. The Guards liked little Elizabeth,  Grandma once told me, but her little sister Margaret was much more mischievous, dashing past soldiers she had already walked by to make them jump back to attention. Kids will be kids, even when they’re royalty.

It’s probably Grandma’s occasional royal-watching that sparked my own here-and-there awareness of the Windsors. And through all the family drama – and my, was there a lot of it – the familiar face aged and endured. Always with that familiar stern dignity and a Corgi close to hand.

In that regard, losing her was a little like losing Grandma all over again.  

The stoicism was easy to tease, of course. “The Naked Gun” portrayed Queen Elizabeth at a ballgame, passing refreshments and doing The Wave with aplomb. The Olympics depicted her skydiving with James Bond, while her own jubilee put her at tea with a well-meaning Paddington Bear. But the joke always had a bit of respect in it, maybe even some envy at the ability to stay unruffled in the most unexpected situations.

None of us have the wealth or the staff or the seemingly endless hat collection of an English queen, of course. But the patience … that’s something more achievable. And something we seem to need more of every day.

Elizabeth took her throne in a nation still recovering from the strains of war. Our own time seems to be forever in the midst of it. I won’t run the roll call of disasters; it’s too familiar and too depressing.  But as each new crisis arrives – whether personal or international – the pressure on each of us pulls just a little tighter.

But we continue. We have to. Perhaps looking back at what we’ve survived, perhaps looking forward to what may come. But always looking to each other as we meet the moment now, with whatever hope we can find to push back the night.

That, too, has remained changeless over 70 years.

“Today we need a special kind of courage,” the queen said early in her reign. “Not the kind needed in battle, but a kind which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest. We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics, so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.”

That spirit, more than any crown or monument, is a legacy to be treasured. And shared.

Farewell, Your Majesty. And thank you.

And don’t worry. We’ll keep an eye on Keith.