Today my mother called me.
"Mr. LaVoie died," she said.
The words took time to register. I was driving to my girlfriend's house to help her move into my dingy and unfashionable apartment, and what turned out to be a tedious chore became an existential lesson in mortality.
I looked the obituary up online and it was sadly true.
Roland E. LaVoie died on June 13. He was 68 years old.
Mr. LaVoie was my high school English teacher. Although most of my teachers through the years morphed into a faceless rogues gallery of nagging, incomprehensible stereotypes of pedagogical authority, Mr. LaVoie distinguished himself above the rest.
He was my mentor, someone who kept teaching even after classes were over. From him, I learned about the complexity of Shakespeare, who could've been a psychiatrist if he lived today, a grasp of the human condition like no other playwright before him displayed. "Ol' Will", as Mr. LaVoie used to call him, would be fascinated with the indelible mark his work left on western civilization.
When we read "The Canterbury Tales," Mr. LaVoie said Chaucer, despite living in an age of absolute horror and death, celebrated life. That's true, especially "The Miller's Tale," one of the most uproarious and outrageously funny things I've read up to that point. I mean, who had time to think about the Black Death when you were reading about some poor schmuck who got a poker up his ass by a suspicious husband?
And the fart joke in that one was priceless.
But it wasn't just "Macbeth" and O. Henry and Carl Sandburg I learned from him. As the faculty advisor to the school's literary magazine, "Demogorgon", I learned how to write, specifically, to construct short stories and poems in such a way where people wanted to read them. I also learned the sting of criticism and being told my work wasn't Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. A mere neophyte, I grappled with a plethora of things. Far from crystal clear prose which lit the page, my writing back then was clunky, a stinking miasma of trite idioms. From Mr. LaVoie, I learned to refine and re-read, and thanks to his influence, I was able to improve and land a spot on the school newspaper.
Here's what he wrote in my 1988 high school yearbook: "I've watched you grow from a new talent into a DAMN good writer, and that's a real reward for me!" He described me as the "next Kurt Vonnegut."
So it goes.
Yet it wasn't just writing I learned from him. Mr. LaVoie loved movies, especially collecting movies on videocassette. Okay, so this dates me a bit. It did happen in the late 1980s, after all. He made a copy of a movie called "The Train," the 1964 Burt Lancaster flick about smuggling art aboard a train during World War II. I still have it somewhere, with his handwriting on the label.
Speaking of trains, Mr. LaVoie was a Lionel train nut. He went to several model railroad shows, working the circuit with other passionate Lionel train aficionados. He even wrote several books on model trains. His first published book, "Greenburg's Model Railroading with Lionel Trains." Pleased that his hobby brought him a chance to write, he gave me a signed copy. On the first page, above his signature, he wrote, "Since I was a teenager, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I dreamed of someday being a published author. This may be a small book in the grand scheme of things, but for me it's the realization of that dream. They do, after all, when you believe in them and persevere! It will be that way with you, too. Never be afraid to dream - that's what makes life such a great experience!"
Mr. LaVoie took time for his students. He chaperoned a class trip to the Stroudsburg, Pa. where a busload of us toured the Stroudsburg Railroad museum. After getting our fill of the locomotives and boxcars, we had a picnic. I have photos of him, cooking kosher hotdogs while wearing a conductor's cap and smoking a pipe. It was still a time when men smoked pipes and resembled knowledgeable fathers from a 1950s sitcom.
The most treasured things Mr. LaVoie gave me was his insight into philosophy and a deeper understanding of life. Whereas most teachers only taught what they were required to before clocking out and getting drunk, Mr. LaVoie was not apathetic. He truly wanted us kids to become freethinking citizens. I recall some very deep conversations we've had. I asked him if he could have a dinner party and invite three people living or dead, who would he choose. After mulling it over, he replied, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Jesus Christ. I also asked him to name the three greatest books he'd ever read. To my surprise, he didn't tick off three works of classical literature. All of his books were about science: Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man", Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Jospeh Campbell's "The Power of Myth". The latter volume left such a deep impression upon me that Mr. LaVoie presented a copy to me on my 21st birthday. I still have it on my shelf. He wrote, "Dear Eric: This absolutely amazing and beautiful book will change the way you look at your world. Enjoy it!"
In "The Power of Myth", Campbell presents a concept of "following your bliss" in an interview with Bill Moyers. It has been a defining ethos in my early 20s, to not settle for anything less than what I wanted. Campbell said, "If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are - if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time."
To many of us, Mr. LaVoie resembled the Robin Williams' character, John Keating, from "Dead Poet's Society", a unique teacher who instructed life lessons instead of only the usual classroom pablum. I'm not suggesting we ran around the school shouting "carpe diem!" or referred to Mr. LaVoie as "My captain!" Incidentally, Mr. LaVoie said he disliked that movie because the students lionized Keating instead of what he taught.
To him, teaching was everything. Imparting lessons with quirky humor and sharing bits from his own history through letters or postcards only made us former students who knew him richer in spirit.
Mr. LaVoie was in his early 40s when I met him in 1987, the same age I am today. Our friendship continued to about 1995, when I received a final letter from him. I was a numbskull in my 20s, trying to make sense of life while beginning a career as a newspaper reporter. As I recall the important lessons from "The Power of Myth" and from conversations I had with Mr. LaVoie about politics and philosophy, I realize just how blessed I was for our paths to have crossed.
Throughout the years, I thought of him and wondered what the old guy was up to. I knew he retired from teaching many years ago and was probably living out his golden years writing about model railroading or spending time with his family.
If he were here today, I would thank him for showing me kindness and teaching me life's most important lessons aren't learned in the classroom.
He taught me never to suffer fools gladly, the necessity of humor and the importance and value of the written word.
His was a life richly lived, for he reached out to his students and gave them an understanding of literature and the world around them.
And I miss him.