In my July 20, 2012, post “Thoughts Prompted by a Tribute,” near the end I wrote:
Finally, Tanner’s gracious tribute reminds me of what I want my children to experience in school, why I willingly write those massive tuition checks each year. Yes, I want them well educated in the traditional sense. But more than anything, I want them spending their days being influenced by as many great teachers as possible. (And truly great ones are rare.) No matter what my children end up doing as adults, whatever they take from those relationships is what will serve them best.
Yesterday, some devastating news and people’s response to it reinforced this idea.
Brian Rhoades, a long-time coach at my first school (Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, LA), died in his sleep yesterday morning at age 53. When I heard, I went numb during the phone call. After hanging up, I burst into tears. More on that later in the post. First I want to talk about Brian and how he fits that excerpt cited above.
A college basketball star who led the nation in rebounding one year, Brian stood 6’10”. You can imagine how intimidating and/or uncomfortable that could be to young people. But Brian was one of the warmest, kindest people, with an incredible smile and sparkling eyes. Usually he was singing, and if anyone looked at him strangely for that, he just smiled and sang a bit louder until you smiled back and maybe even joined in. Hugs, pats on the back, tousling of the hair—despite his size, his gentle touch made people feel his concern and love. His silly sense of humor also put people at ease. I recall one time the cross-country team was running in the state meet the first time. It was in Derry, LA. Naturally, everyone was very nervous and tense…until Brian told them “how great it is to run while you’re smelling fresh Derry air.”
Reading the comments on the site where people can share their thoughts about Brian, I am struck by what people share. It’s all about very personal experiences at various events. Campouts. Christmas chapels. Cross-country meets. Class trips. Special projects. At each Brian connected with each student in a personal way. One tells of him staying with her when she was sick. Another talks of Brian working through middle school drama and angst with him, including family trouble. One boy recalls how Brian had a group building a bridge, apparently for no purpose, only for it to end up being part of a performance. Another talks about not knowing who was more nervous in 7th grade sex ed, the students or Brian. The common themes are role model and life lessons. And teaching with a genuine, massive, loudly beating heart.
That’s part of why I’ve had such a strong reaction to Brian’s death. When I arrived in LA just out of college, even though he was just two years older than I, I could tell there was so much for me to learn from Brian. Not so much about teaching, but about life. He exuded a wisdom and perspective I couldn’t really fathom; and I learned that, beneath the laid-back persona, there was a really deep thinker who cared immensely. He welcomed me, embraced me, encouraged me, taught me, let me know when I messed up. Most of all, I appreciated how he took the right things seriously, but he also made sure that he—and those around him—enjoyed life. He was one of those teachers I hoped that I could become.
I’m sure some of my response has to do with his being a contemporary, one of my first true colleagues. Maybe some of it is guilt.
I hadn’t seen or talked with Brian for around 13 or 14 years, until this past March, when my family stopped by ESA on our way to New Orleans. As we had driven through Derry, I’d shared the joke about the air. And then we got to spend a really nice time with Brian at the school. He was his usual gracious self, and it was as if we’d just been talking the week before. Plus I saw he still had that same connection with kids. More than anything, I was simply glad Brian was still there. ESA always was an incredibly humane culture, one which he embodied and sustained as others moved on.
Which brings me back to the excerpt above. I don’t know that people first chose to send kids to ESA because of Brian Rhoades. But I know he ended up being why so many are glad they did. And what he gave them will live on. As one person wrote, recently she was talking to her own child and thinking, “Now what would Coach Rhoades say?” He might just smile and sing. As my tears dry, I plan to do the same.