Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Remembering A Hero

Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.
                                                                   --Dr. Seuss

Sometimes it's hard to believe how fast time passes.  I don't really feel any older.  High school feels like yesterday . . . when in reality, I graduated almost 18 years ago.  I was reminded of the passage of time today when I saw a friend's Facebook post remembering one of our teachers.  Mr. Campbell died 17 years ago today, and yet it feels like it just happened. 

Mr. Campbell was one of a kind.  He taught sociology in a way that was so far ahead of its time.  He always treated us like adults, even when we didn't act like them.  He was honest and thoughtful and tolerant beyond belief.  No other teacher tried to understand us, tried to know us, tried to really reach us, the way that he did.  I had the pleasure of taking his class my senior year.  It was a class that was so coveted, students would fight to get placed in it.  In fact, I can remember receiving my schedule the summer before my senior year started.  I had selected the class, but I wasn't registered for it when my schedule came.  I didn't even wait 24 hours before I was up at the school arguing with my guidance counselor to get in the class.  Mr. Campbell was so good that his reputation preceded him.  It was the class to take. 

Our school was incredibly diverse, boasting students of all colors and nationalities, and Mr. Campbell made sure we were aware of it.  His classroom was plastered with posters about various issues -- homelessness, HIV/AIDS, diversity, you name it -- and they reflected his personality.  He was the most open-minded, accepting person I had ever met before or since.  He required each of us to complete community service long before it was a requirement for graduation.  In his class, you could disagree with him or other students, but it never got personal (which is a feat of epic proportions with teenagers).  And he loved us all.  And we loved him back. 

One day during our third period class, Mr. Campbell solemnly (and if I'm going to be honest, nervously) told us that he was HIV positive.  He was honest and treated us like the young adults that we were . . . never sugarcoating any of it.  We were shocked, but it didn't make us love him any less.  At the end of class, as the bell was ringing, each of us lined up to express our support and share a tearful embrace with him. The entire school -- the entire community -- rallied in support around him.  Later that year, during a unit on death and dying, we visited a funeral home and cemetary where Mr. Campbell talked to us frankly, and showed us what he had picked out for his own funeral.   

We honored him at graduation, and when I went away to college in Ohio later that year, he promised to keep in touch.  We exchanged letters from time to time, but there's one particular thing that I will never forget.  I was lounging in my dorm room one fall afternoon my freshman year when the phone rang.  I almost didn't answer it because I was getting ready to take a nap, but when I did, I heard a familiar voice on the other end.  "This is Mr. Campbell!  We're at the student center . . . come out and meet us!"  I was stunned.  "My student center?  At my school?"  "Yes, come over here and meet us!"  I put on my shoes and went running across the street where I saw Mr. Campbell and his partner John waiting for me.  It turns out that they were driving from Indiana back to D.C. when he saw the sign for my school and told John, "Oh, that's WashingTina's school.  We can't drive by and not stop!" So they did. 

They had bought an armoire, which was wedged in the back of the car, so I squeezed myself in next to it and off we went for an early dinner.  I didn't care -- it was the best surprise ever.  We had a great meal, catching up.  It was just the dose of home that I needed being so far away from D.C.  The three of us has our picture taken in front of the student center that day, which I still have framed in our apartment. 

Mr. Campbell got sick and was hospitalized while I was home at Christmas, so another friend and I went to visit him.  It was the last time we ever saw him. He died in early February, 1994.  At his memorial service more than 600 family, friends, colleagues, and former students showed up to remember our hero.  The board of education issued a proclamation commending his teaching and the impact he had had on the community.  There were many that spoke about him that day, students whose lives he had impacted.  Another teacher from my high school gave a speech that embodied Mr. Campbell's legacy.  The movie Schindler's List was just out that year, and the speaker told us that we were Mr. Campbell's list -- that our responsibility was to carry his legacy forward, to teach the way he taught us, to love each other, and to tell his story.  I'm so happy to have known Mr. Campbell, to have felt his influence, and to have learned from his example.

I've kept in touch with his partner, John, over the years, and when WH and I were married, he and his current partner were there with us. It was Mr. Campbell's birthday that day, and I'm certain he was there with us too.  The circle of Mr. Campbell's influence keeps growing as all of us who knew him embrace each other, and open our arms to those who never did.  I'll never forget what he taught me and the legacy that it is my responsibility to pay forward.


  1. Tina,

    I got chills reading this. Your rememberance of Mr. Campbell reminds of special people who were in my life and have passed on. What a very special man he was and what a great tribute to his life and legacy.


  2. Thanks Ben . . . and thanks for always leaving thoughtful comments here.

  3. Awesome post! I remember you spoke so highly of him in college. I wish we all had the chance to experience Mr. Campbell's class, but also his life lessons. I'm happy you had such an amazing person in your life!

  4. Thanks Amy. I wish everyone had the chance to be in his class too . . . I'm certain the world would be a better place.

  5. I often say how difficult it is to adequately describe what an exceptionally special man Phil was, but you have captured who he was with this beautiful tribute. His love for teaching and his students was natural, and him suggesting that we drop in on you at Wittenberg was just as natural. I love seeing what great people you and so many of his students have become, and that you have chosen to include me in your lives. His influnce will pass down for generations and I, like you, feel grateful to have had his influence in my life. You have done Phil, and youself, very proud. His legacy truly lives on through you and the many he touched in his too short life.

    Love you,

  6. Ahh that is so touching! Thank you for sharing. I hope I can be a teacher with such a deep impact. I'm so glad he was able to share with you, and you had those moments together.
    That is what life is really about.

  7. Thanks Tina, for that wonderful and moving tribute to our teacher. He is forever missed and still impacting our lives to this day. He is a guiding light.

    Lots of love!!

  8. You are a beautiful soul. I, too, am grateful for the wonderful legacy that Phil has left behind, and for the amazing people that Phil has brought into my life. John has often told me that I would have loved Phil, and I know I would have.

    I feel his essence when John helps me to see the good in people when I am beyond frustration, when I witnessed the ardent joy during the wedding ceremony between you and WH, and when I witnessed our mutual friend's amazing courage and unbreakable optimism over the last year during his lymphoma treatment.

    Thank you for sharing your memories and your love of this fantastic man.

  9. I saw the link for this on John's wall. More than anything I have read today this really touched me!! You described him so well.

    I took every class I could take to be with him. Both sociology classes, SGA (which I attended on my lunch time bc I couldn't fit it into my schedule) and I was the only white student in his Black Experience class. I am so glad I had a chance to be part of that class. He came to my house for my graduation party in '89. All the people he had to visit that day and I was probably one of many. It was always so clear to us that he loved us. Didn't he make us all feel so extremely special??

    I think you must have been at PB with my brother, Max. Phil was so amazingly special to my brother and I. To my whole family. Thank you for writing about him.

  10. Wow, thanks everyone for your comments. I'm so flattered that you think I was able capture Mr. Campbell spirit in my post. His amazing-ness is hard to put into words. Weren't we all so lucky?

  11. This is a lovely post - it brought tears to my eyes, and I did not even know Mr. Campbell. It sounds like he was lucky to have had you in his life, WashingTina.

  12. thanks for telling me to read this over lunch, now I'm tearing up at my desk...from you know dust on contact lens.

  13. What wonderful words about a more than wonderful man. We were all lucky to know him... and if you knew him, he influenced you. How could he not? I think of him frequently and love reading the stories of others whose lives he touched as well. Thank you!

  14. I loved this post. I hope my kids have one, just one, teacher in their school years who makes a difference like Mr. Campbell.

    I was volunteering for our local marathon's registration Saturday and a middle schooler was there with her mom. The kid is a 7th grader at the school where my kid is a 6th grader. Mom was talking about how the kid was volunteering because she is required to by the school. Mom went on to say, "and the bad thing about that is that I have to be here with her" meaning it was such an inconvenience to come and serve alongside her kid. She didn't mean it quite as jaded/ticky as this sounds but I wanted to grab that woman by the shoulders and scream WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO LIFE BESIDES SERVING? WHAT DOES IT HURT TO SHOW YOUR PRETEEN THAT IT'S COOL FOR PARENTS AND KIDS TO GIVE OF THEIR TIME TOGETHER?

    Sorry for the all caps tirade but this pressed a button. I'll bet Mr. Campbell would have served WITH that kid ... gladly.

    Great post may he rest in peace.