It’s been five days since I heard the news that led to this blog. I have had five days of reflection, tears shed, unanswered questions and conversations I never dreamed I would have. Let’s start at the beginning – the only place a story like this starts.
At no surprise to you, my readers, I was a rowdy kid. Today, they’d call it ADD. Back in the 80s, it was “hyperactive.” My mind moved faster than my teachers could accommodate and as a result, I got in trouble. I wasn’t a discipline problem, mind you. Rather, a smart kid with a photographic memory and a brain that moved faster than Speedy Gonzalez on meth. In 7th grade, I found myself plopped into Mr. Crowley’s Texas History class. Every 7th grader in Aldine Independent School District took Texas History in 7th grade, so its appearance on my schedule was no surprise. It didn’t mean I had to like it, though.
I spent a fair amount of time passing notes with James Nowak (I think) and subsequently getting the requisite, “ERIKA!” belted out from Mr. Crowley during the first few weeks. I read the textbook at breakneck speed and spent my class time doodling on my book cover.
But one day, Mr. Crowley got my attention – and it all started with the flower you see above.
We’ve all heard the song The Yellow Rose of Texas. He knew we had as well. But Mr Crowley – that slick sonofabitch – knew how to get a 7th grader’s attention. He asked us if we knew what the song was about. Naturally, we didn’t. So he told us: the “yellow rose of Texas” refers to one Miss Emily West, a mulatto woman who seduced Santa Ana during the Texas Revolution.
Kinky. Dirty. And as 7th graders, we’d never really heard something so scandalous put in the context of history. We liked it.
Mr. Crowley, having gained my attention, got me interested in history. That year, I competed in the History Fair and went all the way to State with my solo performance as Quanah Parker. Yeah, Quanah was a dude, but Mr. Crowley never said otherwise. Rather, he even lent me this really cool Indian headdress from his personal collection (along with a hot as hell leather shirt and war axe) to wear during my performances. His support earned me many ribbons and medals.
He’s one of those teachers who took an interest in me. His passion for something so seemingly obscure as Texas History gave me a home when my home life wasn’t…normal. Divorced parents doing the best they could and lots of time alone led me to seek solace in academics. Today, it’s evident that my parents gave me the best gift ever: no slack for grades and a broken home.
I’ll never forget how it felt to win. And Mr. Crowley was always right there, in his short sleeve button-down plaid shirts, weird ties and brown pants. He made history come to life and planted the seed for years of History competitions and a pile of ribbons and medals that now rest somewhere in my mother’s attic.
Last Friday, I received a message from my long-time friend Cara, asking me if I’d heard about Mr. Crowley. No, I had not – do tell.
On Friday, January 16, 2004, Mr. Crowley died.
My day suddenly became about everything but me. Rather, it became about why I am me and how I got here.
I’ve spent hours over the past couple of days on my sofa, surrounded by yearbooks and photo albums, remembering the events, people and teachers who contributed to the legacy that’s become me. While it’s impossible for me to remember Mr. Crowley as anyone but a boisterous, fun-loving and tireless soul, I can tell you what I’ve learned that I’ve learned from teachers like him who have graced my life:
- The work day doesn’t end when everyone else goes home. Teachers like Mr. Crowley stayed after school. They spent their weekends traveling on shitty school buses with green vinyl seats at 6:30 in the morning to take their students to do something pretty cool: have the opportunity to excel. The extra hours we put in throughout our lives make a difference, and I’m overwhelmingly thankful for the teachers who put their hours into my life.
- You may never use this information, but learn it anyway. I swore I’d never use Texas History. Calculus? Oh, suck it. My teachers spent their lives committed to passing on information and I can only imaging how many times they’ve heard, “I’m never gonna use this stuff!” I’m here to tell you – you’re wrong and your teachers are right. I own my own business, I do my own bookkeeping. The anecdotes from every history and science class of my youth add flavor and texture to my writing. I had to learn proper grammar and usage in order to know when and how to break the rules. I use everything.
- Everyone has an impact. I met David Thomas Crowley on my first day of 7th grade over 23 years ago. There’s not a year that goes by that I don’t smirk to myself about the Yellow Rose of Texas. From Mrs. Hammer who drove her daughter, Tiffany, and me to and from volleyball practice to Mrs. Sheldon who crapped a kitten when I pulled some day-saving quote about politics and political parties out of my backside at State Mock Congressional Hearing … the teachers in my life gave me something to believe in on account of their steadfast belief in me.
- Everyone is a teacher. While we may not be victims of the crappy pay and perpetually lippy student body, we all teach the people in our lives something. What have I done today that’s made an impact? A question we should ask ourselves more often, I think. From parents and children to third grade teachers and their students to bosses and employees. Professional writers and their readers. We all leave something behind with every action and every word. Life’s a pond of delight – toss your pebbles and share the ripple effect.
Mr. Crowley’s obituary stated:
He was a teacher at Aldine Independent School District for the past 24 years and a recipient of many awards.
Using those math skills I swore I’d never use, I figure:
5 classes a day X 25 students per class = 125 students per year X 24 years.
That’s 3000 lives Mr. Crowley touched. And probably even more snickers about the Yellow Rose of Texas. Mr. Crowley taught my brother and my younger sister and many more siblings over the years. I wish I had the chance to tell him what I’m writing today – how much I thought of him. The regard in which I held and still hold him. I regret that it took hearing about a tragedy five years after the fact for me to sit down and thank those who have made my life better and shaped the person I’ve become.
If anyone reading this remembers Mr. Crowley and 7th grade Texas History, leave a comment below. As well – how have your teachers impacted your lives and the lives of those you love? Say it now, say it here. Don’t wait 23 years like I did.
Some parting notes for my teachers:
Mrs. Collier (Junior High and High School Theatre Arts teacher)
Thank you for teaching me the value of showing your ass. It led to a college degree in Theatre, a passion for technical theatre and a career as a working actor and voiceover artist. I recite “Goldie” by Roald Dahl and “Yertle the Turtle” in my sleep and still have a passion for the importance of a sound argument learned through those years of LD Debate and extemporaneous speaking.
Mrs. Brinkley (High School algebra teacher)
I still hate math but understand why I had to learn it. And your statement that, “Profanity is the feeble mind’s way of expressing itself.” Yes, let’s cover that. Sixteen years of English (college included) gave me the mettle to understand when it’s OK to break the rules. I’m well-paid to swear – people hire me because of it. It suits me. Fuckin’ A.
Mr. Stanford (High School history/political science teacher)
You made me laugh and love learning. I was also sitting in your class the morning Stevie Ray Vaughan died – fall of my Senior year. Your passion for politics lit a fire under my ass – thanks for teaching me to recognize the best kind of “burning sensation.” I felt it again when I decided to write full-time. Burn, baby…burn.
Professor Jonathan Middents
Professor Claire Marie Verheyen
Professor Mark Olsen
(University of Houston Theatre Department)
You shaped my passion and gave me no slack for not showing up for class, for shop or for rehearsal. It’s because of you that I still have a passion for fencing, think weapons play in movies is sick, own more power tools than the men in my life and can build a corset out of a bolt of muslin and a roll of boning. Oh, and I can hem a mean curtain, too.
Professor Robert Zaretsky (University of Houston Honors College)
I’ll never forget your passion for French culture and the admiration you expressed for their ability to enjoy a glass of wine and a cigarette without stigma. Your classes prompted the most intriguing discussions and I appreciated your advisory skills on my Senior Honors Thesis. “Mating Rituals of the Wild Redneck (and other Southern phenomena)” still haunts me, but it’s one of the pieces that help me find my voice – the voice that keeps me employed and in-demand as a writer today.
David Crowley – you’re missed. I can only hope his family understands that there’s a legion of students who remember him as a bright point in their 7th grade year. There are also may more than me, I’m sure, who remember him many years after the fact. Twenty-three years. And counting.