It is very hard to peer into the prematurely jaded frown of a 7th grader, beam back, and convince him or her to assign genders to inanimate objects. Yet once upon a time, an impossibly cheerful man burst into a small classroom of awkward 7th graders and turned them into a laughing group of friends, chuckling over the preposterous puppets Luke and Sylvie. It’s quite significant that we all remember that class, and we all still can reminisce about how wonderful it was. We were his first class as a newly minted teacher. I wondered later if that was why he was so exuberant and persistent in his desire for us to love French. Maybe that was why it was rare to see a teacher tingling head to toe with excitement—the seasoned ones seemed resigned to our difficult natures. But it wasn’t why. I saw him five years later, and he was still the same cheery personality. He seemed to have this extraordinary dedication to his profession, a mentality that is so innate that I wonder if some people never grasp it.
It was a great shock to me this morning to get an email that Mr. Coleman had passed away. I knew last fall that he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, but time seemed viciously fleeting. I hadn’t seen him since the diagnosis, but I can only hope that he was able to comprehend from our written messages how important he was to me and so many students, now scattered around the country and even the world.
When I went to Taiwan last year, it had been nine altering years since I’d been in Mr. Coleman’s class. I stood in front of a classroom of fourth graders, saw them agitate as fourth graders do, and I started to sweat. How would I make English interesting in a place where the only native English speaker my students interacted with was me? Unbidden, Mr. Coleman’s classroom surfaced in my mind. I never came into contact with another French-speaking person that year in 7th grade, I thought. Yet I undoubtedly loved French.
In learning a language—or perhaps anything—I feel that early associations stick with you. They determine the trajectory of the relationship between you and that language. I think Mr. Coleman single-handedly made all of us associate a new, intimidating language with fun and joy. So many of Mr. Coleman’s students went on to take French throughout high school and study it in college and beyond. I thought of the eccentricities he worked into each lesson: puppets, fly swatters, songs, things that got us out of our seats! I thought of his face, which defaulted into an encouraging smile. Even when chiding us, the corners of his mouth seemed to dance in protest. It is so hard to go into a classroom and be an effective, likeable, interesting, cheerful, encouraging, and knowledgeable person in front of thirty people every day. Mr. Coleman did so with the appearance of it being effortless, at least to our impressionable middle school eyes.
In brainstorming the best way to teach English to a class of boisterous Taiwanese children, I tried to channel Mr. Coleman in the best way I could, and tried to fill the room with laughs rather than worries. As a teacher, Mr. Coleman’s legacy magnified. The way he impacted me changed the way I taught my own students, and hopefully it will ripple forward to whomever they go on to teach, in whatever part of the globe. I know this is the case for many other former students of Mr. Coleman who have stood in front of a classroom. I hope he knew that that is the most admirable mark anyone could leave—a mark that does not fade, and even replicates forward with time. I wonder who his own influences were, and how he came to be such a great figure in the halls of Herricks Middle School. I know that they too must be grieving today.
I won’t forget his smile, his passion for life, and his sense of purpose. I suppose teachers are multifaceted—the face they present in the classroom is only one side of their whole being. The Mr. Coleman we knew is only one aspect of him. But that face matters. It leaves indelible marks. The legacy of Mr. Coleman extends farther than we can pinpoint, and I hope he was able to appreciate that, even in the face of the tragedy of his disease. Rest in peace, Mr. Coleman—you are missed by many.