(This is a long one. Please don’t start reading it unless you have the time to spare.)
He was not a big man. He didn’t appear to be rich. He was soft spoken. I do remember him having a bit of a wry smile. My memories of his physical characteristics have faded through the years, but his spirit I remember as if he was standing right in front of me.
I met my hero when I started sixth grade as a ten year old, probably the youngest in my class. My experience with formal education was not so good up to that point. I had difficulties being “quiet and not disturbing others” or so it always said on the citizenship side of my report card. In other words, I liked to socialize. As a four year old in kindergarten, this trait got me in trouble. I easily can remember my kindergarten teacher putting me in a dark coat closet, isolating me from the other children, because I was being noisy. Unfortunately, she forgot that I was in there until she retrieved her coat to go home for the day. She found a quietly, sobbing little boy in the dark. I had been in there for hours. The school bus had taken everyone home already. I guess I was lucky the day required a coat or I might still be in there. Apparently, however, solitary confinement did not break my social spirit. I continued getting “Needs Improvement” marks on the citizenship side of the report card throughout all the early grades. My academic marks weren’t very stellar either, except in Physical Education.
I had a really nice 1st grade teacher, but then my luck turned bad for four years in a row. I had teachers who didn’t seem to like little boys with poor penmanship who wanted to be outdoors more than indoors. I tended to get sick a lot. I was very skinny. My ears were large and they did not lie politely next to my head. This became the focus of some pretty serious childhood teasing. By the time I reached 6th grade, my emotional state was not very good. In school, I lived for recesses , Physical Education, and a wandering minstrel, the kind and lovely Mrs. Paye, who taught our music lessons. As the last day of fifth grade came, there was only one big question: Who would be lucky enough to get Mr. Ali (pronounced Al- Lie, not Ah-Lee) as their sixth grade teacher?
Mr. Ali was a small town hero. He went to school in our town. He was easily recognized as the best athlete to ever grow up in our area. After high school, he signed a professional baseball contract. However, his very promising career quickly came to an end when he was diagnosed with a very severe type of arthritis. He found his way back to college, even attending the same college that I have worked at now for 20 years, to earn a teaching credential. From sports hero, to elementary school teacher, Mr. Ali had to deal with dramatic changes in his life. However, his passion for sports never was compromised. He would get those students, like myself, who loved playing games with balls, enrolled in his class. He would spend countless hours coaching these children in after school sports programs. He often would give me a ride home in his old (even for that time) Jeep. When he did, I felt like the most important person on earth. I was certainly the luckiest.
In the classroom, I continued to have problems concentrating on my assignments, but I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Ali. Once he made me sit next to him up front in the classroom as he went around the room asking in an orderly manner what the answer was to Arithmetic Problem #1, #2, #3 and so on. When it came to be my turn he said, “Gary, what is the answer to number seventeen?” He ever so slightly pointed his finger to the answer out of his Teacher’s Manual for me so that nobody else would notice. I read and said the correct answer. He replied, “Yes, that is correct.”
He also could be a tough disciplinarian as he had a wooden paddle with holes drilled in it to reduce the wind friction. He used it on me once. You see, I was on the schoolyard basketball court and I spit on the court while I was playing in a game. It felt manly at the time. In Mr. Ali’s eyes, I had disrespected the honorable court of competition. I had to bend over and “Whap.” I never spit again on any surface that a game was played on. To this day, I find it disgusting and disrespectful.
Sixth grade was going very well for me. I rarely missed school. I started getting interested in the academic subjects too. I played sports constantly and,at times, in certain sports I was as good as anyone. I had a nice group of boyhood friends who would spend weekends on the schoolyard playing whatever sport was in season. Mr. Ali would even check in on our informal pick-up games – “How many hits did you get? How many points did you score?” In October, he would bring in his transistor radio and we would all quietly work on our assignments while listening to a World Series game. I was never happier nor ever would be happier in an educational setting. I loved Mr. Ali and so did everyone else. In fact many years later, some of those boyhood friends got together lovingly recalling those days. I said, “Well, I was Mr. Ali’s favorite.” Spontaneously, everyone else said they were his favorite. In truth, he had this incredible ability to make all of us feel special.
It couldn’t get any better, and it didn’t. Mr. Ali started missing work. We had a lot of substitute teachers coming in. Finally he was missing so much work that we ended up with a permanent substitute teacher. As a class, we were not kind to her. To be fair, nobody could replace Mr. Ali, but she used the more traditional approaches to behavior modification. It failed and my school year went back to being more like the previous years. We deeply missed Mr. Ali.
By the springtime, it was time for that, previously mentioned, wandering minstrel, Mrs Paye, to present the annual musical performance. She chose from Mary Poppins, Supercalifrailisticexpialidocious, as our song to sing in the auditorium/gym to all the invited guests. She put me at the center of the top row of our children’s choir, a very visible position. Unfortunately, I spent so much time learning to say “Supercalifrailisticexpialidocious” that I never bothered learning the rest of the lyrics, but I had a plan. I would lip sync the rest of the words and I would do it convincingly too. When it came time to perform, I nailed Supercalifrailisticexpialidocious, but for the rest of the song I was “lip’ing” for sure but I was not synced. I was simply guessing, and guessing very wrong, what the next lyrics might be. Poor Mrs. Paye looked horrified as she directed us through the song. I knew I was sinking so I decided to double-down and put even more of myself into the lip syncing portion. Mrs. Paye looked absolutely overcome with shock and dismay by the end of the/my performance. I knew I blew it and that there might be some hell to pay. However, suddenly and spontaneously everyone ran off the stage. At first I thought that they were trying to get as far away from me as possible in order to avoid becoming collateral damage from Mrs. Paye’s wrath. (In honesty, Mrs. Paye was not capable of wrath. She was a very kind person.) I came to understand the sudden choir departure when I heard someone say, “Mr. Ali is here!”
He was surrounded by adoring sixth graders, lots of them, not just our class. I couldn’t even see him, even from the top row of the stage, so I came down off the stage. Now I swear to you, this is just how it happened… As I came closer to the center of the circle of students, still about 15 feet away, the crowd of students opened up and I could look directly at Mr. Ali. His eyes focused clearly on me and he waited for me to come to him, but I didn’t because I couldn’t. I was frozen. My hero was now quite thin, and worn, and he was in a wheelchair. I don’t know what the look was one my face, but I was in deep sadness. We continued to stare at one another and, in a very loving moment, Mr. Ali broke his gaze from me as he started interacting with all those happy kids around him. I left the auditorium and I never saw Mr. Ali again. A few years later, the disease that ended his baseball career, also ended his life. He was a very young man with a very young family which he adored. Even now as I am an old man, I wish I could run up to Mr. Ali, lay my head on his shoulder and tell him thank you. I so much wish I could have done that the last time I saw him.
The lessons that he taught me have lasted for 52 years, so far. I use those lessons nearly everyday as I am someone who works closely with college students. My fondness is great for those college students especially those who have decided to be a school teacher. Caring enough about someone’s well being that you are willing to break the rules for them is an important part of my professional strategy. Understanding that the little things are really the big things and that personal values should not be compromised, such as spitting on an outside athletic court, are deeply embedded in my perspectives on people and life. I am just one of his former students. Mr. Ali’s lessons have been amplified by hundreds of his former students. I am certain, to this day, they too still love Mr. Ali as much as I do. As I said at the beginning, his physical attributes have faded from my memory, but his spirit lives just as strong today, through his loving lessons on life, as they did back then… maybe even stronger. Mr. Ali was a hero for a lifetime.
Thanks for reading,