When I learned of George Milne’s death last week, I was so stunned I had a hard time catching my breath. I was moments from embarking on an all-day hike & expedition with a bunch of 8th graders on our annual Week Without Walls trip. Mr. Milne was my 8th grade drafting teacher. George was a friend and a colleague I enjoyed talking to when I first started as a substitute teacher.
His passing was sudden and unexpected to me because I only learned he was sick four days before. I last saw him perhaps 16 years ago, but he’d been a consistent presence on my Facebook wall for several years. Then he just went quiet. His daughter posted an update on his wall that he was struggling, and requested messages of love directed to him. I eagerly contributed in a private message, and wondered if I’d hear anything in return. Another update online followed a few days later that included a photo of him and the phrase “cancer sucks!” – the first reference to anything specific about his condition. The final word came just a few days later. I doubt though that more notice would make his passing easier to accept.
Since Tuesday, I have read dozens of testimonials about his gentle and supportive influence from people my age and older; each piece I’ve read has resonated with me, which speaks to his universal appeal to students and adults who knew him as a colleague or member of the community. Gabe Frazee’s account of a very close connection to him rings especially true. So does the story from woman whom I don’t know, who wrote about George being the assistant coach on a travel soccer team she played on when she was an adolescent. What stayed with me is her acknowledgement that he’d had such a lasting impact on her despite very limited contact with him. Both the deep connection and the casual influence echo my experience being around George.
He was my teacher for only one semester in 8th grade, and what I remember from that time is how easy it was to be in his class. Junior high school were unpleasant years for me, but Mr. Milne had a spirit about him that defied the difficulty that I felt during that time. I wasn’t alone. I remember that drafting classroom being packed with those high-top drafting tables – I want to say there were 40 or 50 of them in there – with a student at each desk. It was a classroom in a trailer, and looking back at it, I imagine that George met with the head custodian to measure the room before school started and worked out the maximum number of desks the room could accommodate, then he went to the registrar and sweet talked her and the principal into letting enrollment for the class go as higher and higher. I think my section of drafting was all boys. Thinking about all the characters in my class back then – we were the motley-est group of junior high school twerps you could ever collect in one place. The only thing we had in common was our interest in our teacher – even today if you put us all together he would still probably be the only connection between us. But what a connection. Was there anyone more nimble than he with a pun, or a self-deprecating joke? It was like being in class with a sardonic Santa Claus impersonator who knew you knew the beard was a fake but invited you to play along anyway.
I’m a teacher now, and I distinctly remember the day when I decided that this was my path. I thought very carefully about my Teacher Hall of Fame and wondered if I could be like the people I looked up to. George was there at the top of the list. I remember saying out loud to my traveling companion over omelets in middle-of-nowhere, rural Thailand (that’s where I was when it became crystal clear this was my path) that I wanted to be as easy-going and composed as he was. Everything appeared easy to him, and as a student around him things were easier for me, too. That’s the model I wanted to follow.
Having been in this line of work for a while now, I recognize that George had the gift of including people without ever making it look like he was trying to be inclusive. It just happened. George’s classroom was always inclusive – that’s what drew all those mismatched boys to his drafting elective that I was in decades ago. There are identical descriptions from the girls who played soccer for him, so too the students who had him for history. His colleagues talk about him in the same fashion. He loved teaching, perhaps because it never felt like work for him – I aspire to that level of effortlessness. That gift he gave in abundance to anyone who wanted it.
There’s one specific moment with him that I treasure. In high school, I was apart of state-wide leadership organization outside of school. When I was in college I attended an alumni dinner for that organization, which was being held in a hotel near my college. The alumni event happened at the same location and time as one of the organization’s annual high school leadership conferences. On my way to dinner, I stuck my head into the conference general session, and there was George. He was the advisor that year for San Dieguito’s ASB, and was reveling in all the high school students doing their leadership thing at the conference. We shot the shit, as you do with George, for some time. It was the highlight of the night for me (in fact, I don’t have any memories of the dinner). I mentioned to him how much I enjoyed that drafting class way back at Diegueno Jr High. He lit up with a special smile and said, “Yeah, that was a great class . . . . You want to know how I came to teach it?” Of course I did. It goes like this: He was called into the principal’s office one day, and the principal wanted to ask for a favor from George. There was a need for more electives, and the principal wondered about offering a drafting class (which I believe was not something George had ever taught before). Asking teachers to willingly add more teaching preps to their schedule is the fast track to making enemies at a school, so the principal, George said, was careful in how be proposed the idea and had a well-thought out argument that would appeal to George’s interest in doing what was best for kids. Less than two minutes into the principal’s pitch, George simply said, “Sure. I’ll do it.” The principal had not finished his pitch, but George knew it was a good thing for kids, and he just sorta said yes to things like that. That was it. Just like that, he picked up the class.
I brought this story up a few months ago when I applied for a position at my school that I wanted. The story came to mind because part of the job was only loosely defined, and all of the options for that part of the position were outside of my teaching experience. I invoked this story of George taking up something that was good for kids even if it was outside of his traditional role. I got the job. I don’t know the degree to which this story helped me as a candidate in the eyes of my principal, but to me it mattered a lot. The new position does not start until the Fall, but I know that the newness of that position will change me and the trajectory of my career, just as George’s was changed by his decisions to do things in his own way for others. My hope is that my work will be as meaningful to others as his was to me.
George Milne was a jolly, generous, and gentle man, and offered his gifts to us so freely. He wasn’t quite a giant – too gentle for that – but he was certainly, to borrow one of his favorite jokes – quite tall for his height.
Farewell, Dear George; farewell.
One of the fun parts of living in Chennai is developing an understanding of the various holidays. Mid-January brings Pongal, the celebration of the sun, a winter harvest festival, and a day of giving thanks for agriculture. There’s some ceremony around the year’s first rice crop, and the first batch of cooked rice is eaten auspiciously from a special Pongal jar. Sugar cane is also important — kids are seen chewing it all day long, and people are carrying long stalks of it on their motor bikes and cars off to different celebrations. Pongal-eve, called Bhogi, also is a special day of clearing out and cleaning. Typically old possessions are burned in order to create space for new acquisitions in the new year. Two indicators of these important days are the thick smoke throughout the city in the morning on Bhogi — a demonstration of how much is being burned before dawn — and the multitude of kollams, or elaborate chalk drawings, that women create outside their door steps the morning of Pongal.
There are a lot of festive holidays in Tamil Nadu, all of which offer just as many opportunities to reflect and start anew. This is my third year and my third Pongal, but it is perhaps the first time I’ve understood why we’ve had the day off school and what’s being observed. I’ve come to enjoy the firecracker-filled days of celebration and observance here (whether canonized or not, firecrackers are definitely a part of every Indian holiday), and feel the natural opportunity to reflect. It’s been quite a year.
Last year on Pongol, Susannah & I hosted our first guests as a couple. We were newly married and excited to welcome visitors together. The year was filled with visitors by family and friends alike. All of our parents, save one (we have seven parents and step-parents between us) came to see us in 2015. It’s wonderful to have guests visit our lives here. I’ve learned that a distinct bond develops between me and those who come to see what our lives in Chennai is all about. Visitors develop a visceral comprehension of life here, and the shared experience is so strong that it continues even when the guests return home. The result is a special kind of richness that I feel between me and those who have experienced my life here. It’s not something I ever could have anticipated before I arrived in India, but it’s something I value most about being here.
This rich connection to family and friends became even more important as the past year was highly challenging. Most recently, the epic rain and flooding of Chennai reached a level of intensity I had not lived through previously. In the end, Susannah and I were fine — the roof of our house leaked in a dozen places and the power was out for several days, but some of our colleagues lost everything they owned, or everything on the first floor of their homes. Some evacuated temporarily until repairs could be made; others can never return to where they called home before the storm. Outside of our school community, the monsoon and the human decisions before, during, and after it were devastating. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. Some of the news reports I saw reminded me very acutely of the incompetent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We got lucky by virtue of not living directly in a floodplain, and it’s not like we had that in mind when we were deciding where we might want to live a year ago. We dodged a flood just by dumb luck. I’m grateful for that everyday.
We’ve been unlucky, too — the past year brought to our lives the emotional turmoil of two pregnancies and two miscarriages. I’ve since learned that miscarriage is quite common among couples who want to get pregnant. Fortunately, the friends I have who are part of that club offered counsel and wisdom far beyond my own reasoning just when I needed it most. I also learned that even the most challenging experience a newly-married couple can have was not insurmountable for Susannah & I to cope with — yet more for which to be grateful.
When I look back at my work from the last year — or even the entire time I’ve been here, which is not that much longer — I’m quieted by the number of different things I’ve had the chance to work on. In 2.5 years, the range and depth of initiatives and challenges that have come my way might take a decade or longer to experience in the U.S. My learning curve has been steep — perhaps greater than even the first year of my teaching career — as I’ve tried to keep up with the elusive task of developing new ideas and strategies for teaching such a diverse population of students in a progressive education model. More immediately, I’ve been neck-deep in the question, ‘Why should 8th graders from Korea, Japan, India, and Europe care about American history?’ Some days I have a clear answer; others days I’m much less certain.
Happy Pongal, and, what a year. I’ll worship the sun, as is the custom, for it rises each day over the Bay of Bengal here, offering the nutrients the crops need to thrive. In writing this I recognize that the western calendar has New Year’s as a natural time for reflection. For some reason, I wasn’t ready then. We were traveling then, and perhaps being away from India for that holiday distanced my thinking from my life here. So I’ve taken Pongal’s invitation for reflection, and I’m even grateful for that, too. I’ve accepted a new position at my school that starts in July; part of the deal was I agreed to stay here through 2018. Even though I know we’ll be here another 2.5 years, I’m aware that there will be a time when I don’t live in India any more. It’s strange to think that right now because when you’re in India, it consumes you. It’s hard for me to imagine not living here most of the time. But today, Pongal, has offered me a chance to savor my life here. It’s wonderful. My special Pongal cup is full, not of celebratory rice, but of gratitude.