“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allan Poe
I first read this quote 13 years ago, in your Creative Writing class. I don’t remember how it came to be and I didn’t really know what it meant. Eventually I turned around and with glee I said, “I don’t get it, but I like it.” And you sat there in a blue sweater vest, your wide, bright eyes, silver hair (well…what was left of it), crooked smile and chuckled to yourself, “So you’re inspired by the unknown?” And I never thought of it that way, but that seems to make sense now. I nodded unsure and reluctantly, confused and curious at the same time. What did I know?
When I lost the “campaign” to be senior class vice president, you noticed my mural campaign signs and asked if I would be interested in painting a piece for your classroom. I never considered myself an artist, but I loved the idea of being able to contribute something special to your classroom. Plus, you must’ve noticed me admiring the ones on your ceiling all day. I decided to paint the Edgar Allen Poe quote, with the stars and moons, since I had an odd obsession with astronomy at the time. I remember how giddy I was to present the piece to you at the end of the year. I had never made anything quite like that up until then. You thanked me, congratulated me (on the upcoming graduation), shook my hand, and told me to come back and visit afterschool. Naturally and enthusiastically, I agreed.
The summer after I graduated high school I finally got around to reading your favorite book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”. You often referenced it in class and it wasn’t until I read it in its entirety did I understand why you loved it so much. It encompasses everything you are: a teacher, an inspiration, and someone that does it with quirky witty humor. It quickly rose to the top of my favorite books too. For a while I was even hell bent on writing a similar type book when I finally got to some undetermined ripe old age. And even though I was finally free of the dark and dank walls of Shorewood High School, I couldn’t wait to visit you after my first college classes to see where my mural ended up and talk about the book.
We laughed and analyzed the book together, the same way I am sure you have done dozens of times before me. But to me it was all new. I asked questions – you answered with your own questions, compelling me to realize how I could apply this book to my own life. I could have spent hours upon hours talking to you but alas…teachers have so much work to do! So we started meeting on a weekly basis and you basically became my Morrie. Except it was Thursdays or Fridays, not Tuesdays.
I looked forward to those afternoon meetings more than anything else. Because with you Mr. Kelly, you believed in me, you challenged me, and I was never afraid to ask you questions. As the daughter of an immigrant family, I grew up sheltered and you brought a point of view I never had a chance to explore. You shared in my triumphs at school and listened to my melodramatic relationship woes. How you ever did that is beyond me…present me would have told past me to shut up and get over it. But not you Mr. Kelly. You listened with compassion, actively asking questions that made me learn how to see things objectively for what they were with a mature eye, not the harrowing drama my teenage self was making it out to be.
I learned many things over the years from you about life and about myself. I learned you dreamed of buying a piece of land in Australia and building your retirement home there. I also learned you kept a silly magazine at your desk to remind you how ridiculous riches and fame can be for some people. Remember the catalog where you could buy a lifetime flight pass or individual submarine tank? That was ridiculously hilarious.
Of all the lessons you taught me, the one that I cherish the most is how you taught me to follow my heart. Not haphazardly and blind without precaution, but with genuine intent, passion, and with a smile. You showed me how to dream big and be realistic at the same time. I still have the notebook we used to identify the goals I wanted to set for self. You know it was in these moments my life trajectory took a different spur? I would have always placed my dreams and passions in 2nd place if it hadn’t been for you. You taught me how to prioritize and how to make things happen. I wish we could go through that list together and see how many of them I’ve been able to check off before I’m 30.
Did you know that I finally got around to creating that photography web page we talked about? I rolled my eyes at you at the time because I never thought I could do it. I dedicated each blog to a different person in my life, but I had dedicated the whole web site to you. I wanted to tell you when it was ready, but I never did.
Did you know that I went on a great adventure by quitting my job and moved to Italy? I know you would have been so excited for me and then gasp at what my parents must have thought of that decision. You would have been glad to hear that they were surprisingly supportive, no doubt in thanks to your coaching on how to make amends with them. Then you would have made me a big list of all the places I should visit. And I would have made you promise to come visit me at the winery. I wanted to tell you when it was all happening, but I never did.
Do you remember what a drama it was and how you almost lost your job over a poem in the high school literary magazine? You believe in the arts and free speech. Our conservative district didn’t. That whole debacle made my blood boil and if the district was going to fire you after decades of service, I was sure there would be hell to pay. But I knew you would be able to take care of it yourself. And take care of it you did. Eventually you were reinstated, and I’m so glad you were able to inspire more students along the way.
Do you remember when you retired after 41 years of education service, I gave you the book “1001 Places To See Before You Die”? I remember how you laughed so hard holding your belly, it brought a tear to your eye because you thought I was being funny and inadvertently telling you to hurry up and travel before you passed away. I only wish I had been that clever, but I went with it. I knew you had probably already been to most of these places by now, but there were still a few left for you to explore. I’m sorry that at the time, I strongly believed in writing old fashioned letters and you didn’t want to bother with email, because when you gave me your phone and address to write to you, I somehow lost that tiny piece of paper. And the Shoreline School District was not about to pass along personal information of a former employee to some crazy former student.
I always thought in the back of my mind that somehow, I could track you down. After all, everything is on the internet these days right? But who knew where you were. Between Mukilteo and Australia, I had no idea. My life got busy and I kept pushing the thought to the back of my head. Once in a while it would rise to the surface and I would try to make it a priority, but nothing ever came of it. I shared stories about you constantly in my life, and even met a few more inspiring people along the way. I know it’s my fault for losing touch, and I’m so sorry for that.
I know I’m saying sorry too late. I only can assume you lived a well and happy life with your 74 years on this earth, and I am sure plenty of other former students were able to keep in touch and tell you everything I would have. Without a doubt they would have raved about how you changed their lives and that if it weren’t for you they might have been on a very different path. Because I know that what you did for me, you did for any other person who cared to grow as individuals and be a better human. You’re just that kind of person Mr. Kelly. You cherished life’s precious and random moments, and you taught others how to as well. Your influence ranged near and far, and I doubt I will ever be lucky enough to meet another human being as amazing as you.
At first the idea that I missed my opportunity to tell you all of this broke my heart. But I know that even though I won’t be able to tell you in person and you won’t be there to crack some cheesy joke back, your spirit will always be with me in everything I do. Maybe you’re watching over us from somewhere and you’ll find this letter floating towards you among the stars and the moon. Either way, for what it’s worth, thank you for everything you have shared with me and the world. I hope I can continue to share your optimism and inspiration with others throughout my life…and maybe someday…we can go through that checklist together. Mine is going to be crazy long though…but then again, you wouldn’t expect anything less. 🙂
Sandy Lam (Class of 2004)