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