It’s an innate human desire to leave a legacy. We all want to know that at the end of our time here on this planet, our lives have meant something, had a purpose, and that when we are gone, we will have left a mark of some sort.
It’s a rare occurrence when someone leaves a legacy like that of Mr. Charles “Tuck” Gionet; For he obtained his own legacy of significance through imbuing a sense of significance in those who had the privilege to know him. Every kid who set foot in his classroom, every athlete that stepped on his track came away a better person from knowing him, and came away believing in their own potential.
As I stood near this tree yesterday, awash in tears, I found that I wasn’t just grieving the loss of this amazing man, but was also overwhelmed with the joy of the beautiful stories I was reading of lives changed forever because he gave so much of his heart, his time, his wisdom.
The second greatest loss, after knowing you will never be able to see someone again, is the realization that you missed your opportunity to tell the person what they meant to you. When I first found out Mr. Gionet (after all this time “Tuck” seems so informal) was fighting cancer, this homage began to write itself. And then I remembered the man, and that he would HATE that. As he said to my mother last year, “What, a guy’s gotta get sick for people to tell him how great he looks?”
Truth is, I never believed it would come to this, or that he wasn’t going to overcome this challenge.
I first sat in Mr. Gionet’s classroom in September 1986. While others had trepidation, as his reputation for toughness was well known throughout the halls of Snohomish Junior High School, I had none. For you see, I already knew a secret many of my classmates didn’t: behind that no-nonsense man was a heart of gold. My older sister Colleen had him as a teacher and track coach in 1983-84, and her admiration for him told me everything I needed to know.
Looking back, it’s unfathomable that he was really only a kid when I first had him as a teacher. He already had a commanding presence in the classroom, and a wisdom that belied his age of 26.
On the very first day of World Cultures he did a name exercise. It started with the first person in the front row, they would say their name, followed by the second person who would say the first person’s name, and then their own. The third person named the first two, then said their own name. It went on like that through the whole classroom, until it came to Mr. Gionet, who would then rattle off every single person’s name; Names he never forgot. Ever.
That year he asked me and another student, my friend Eric, to attend a local government meeting. I can’t remember if it was a county council meeting, or if it was a chamber of commerce meeting, but I do remember that he chose us because he said he saw leadership qualities in us. We each gave speeches about “kids today” and what issues mattered to us, and then we opened it up to questions from the officials at the meeting. I will never forget that feeling of knowing that he saw my potential, and gave me a venue to explore it.
There’s something that happens inside you when someone you admire looks at you and says, “I believe in you.” You are forever changed.
By the time I was a junior in high school, Mr. Gionet had transferred up there, and I got him again as a teacher for U.S. history. While others may have dreaded what they knew would be required of them in his class, I was thrilled.
Our very first assignment that year was to write a persuasive essay, which would be strange in a normal history class, but he was no normal history teacher. He cared less about what our opinions were, much more about our critical thinking skills and how well we could defend those opinions.
This was my essay:
I don’t know if he really preferred banana Popsicles (see, I’ve learned to spell Popsicles since 1988) or if he was simply playing devil’s advocate. That was pretty much a foretelling of the nature of most of our interactions. He would say something, I would contest it. I would say something, he would challenge me.
For all I know, he actually agreed with me most of the time, but he would never admit it, lest I become complacent.
Last Friday night I was sorting through my high school mementos in anticipation of the next night’s 25th reunion, and I came across this cartoon:
This satirical comic was printed that year in my high school newspaper, created by one of my fellow U. S. history classmates. While I believe our banter was was much more congenial and light-hearted than this, it illustrates the point well enough.
Notice the teacher is wearing slacks, a button down shirt and a tie. This was something that mattered a lot to him. Manners mattered a lot to him. Civility mattered a lot to him. Involvement and investment mattered a lot to him. (Also, proper spelling of the words “a lot” mattered to him, as my friend Andy reminded me yesterday.)
That first semester I got a B. I wasn’t happy about that. However, in Mr. Gionet’s class, I knew the grades given were always and only the grades we earned.
Our final major assignment of the school year was an oral report on some major event in U.S. history. I knew if I was going to get an A, I was going to have to go all out.
I chose to do my report on the Vietnam war. I didn’t want to stand up and read dry facts off of note cards. I decided I would create a vignette in which I was a teenager during the war, and I would act out a scene of reading and writing letters with a friend who had been drafted and was serving. I compiled actual letters between my mother and her high school friend from his time in Vietnam. I recorded videos off of TV like “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane to be playing in the background as I read the letters out loud. I infused my mother’s responses with facts about the climate in America and what he could expect when he returned home. And I did all of this dressed head to toe in full hippie gear.
Somewhere in my mother’s house is the VHS recording Mr. Gionet insisted on making of my report, and I can tell you that my transcript showed an A for that semester.
When it came time to get letters of recommendation for my college applications, it was a no-brainer that I was going to ask him. There wasn’t a teacher in that school whose opinion mattered more to me, and who I felt knew my potential the best.
I wasn’t disappointed. He wrote me a letter of recommendation that I have kept and looked at occasionally over the years, if only to remind myself that someone great once believed in me.
The first time I ran into Mr. Gionet after graduation was at the wedding reception of a close friend. I had dropped out of college after three years and was 7 months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t want to talk to him, because all I could think about was that he would be disappointed in me that I hadn’t reached my potential. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Being a mom is the most important job in the world.” And I believed he meant it because he NEVER said anything he didn’t mean.
As news of his passing began to circulate on Saturday morning, something amazing began unfolding before my eyes. He wasn’t just MY favorite teacher who believed in me and made me believe in myself, he was that to nearly every student he ever had. How can it be that over the course of 30 plus years he could make each and every kid feel significant? But he did. The popular kids. The lost kids. The smart kids. The kids who struggled. The athletes. The loners. The whole damn Breakfast Club stood a little taller because this man told them they were more than, and they BELIEVED HIM BECAUSE HE BELIEVED IT ABOUT THEM. He was able to see what made each kid special. He was able to see where their confidence was lacking. He was able to get all of us to catch his vision of who we could be.
He did this without coddling. “Suck it up!” ” Don’t do anything stupid! ” “Fer cryin’ out loud!” (This was his signature phrase, and I can verify it goes back at least as far as 1987, as my yearbook attests. )
He did it by fostering confidence through achievement, creating standards, expectations of personal responsibility. He did it by seeing the innate value in each person, making it a priority to know their name.
The last time I laid eyes on him was last summer at the farmer’s market. He was nearly a year into treatment and still had his Clooney good looks, his ascerbic wit and kick-ass attitude. He was anticipating his son’s upcoming wedding, and scoffed at the invitation he had received to attend the class of ’89’s reunion that weekend.
“No one wants an old teacher hanging out at their reunion.”
As I drove to my own reunion Saturday night, my heart heavy with his loss, the words of old friends as they posted story after story of what he meant to each of them running through my mind, I thought to myself, “I hope he knew.”