Jack Rightmyer is a high school English teacher and a frequent freelance writer for the Albany Times Union.
"Some of my favorite authors are Richard Russo, Gilbert King, Anne Lamott and Tim O'Brien. One of the great thrills of my life was biking across England with my wife Judy and visiting numerous locations in the Lake District where my favorite poets Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote, hiked and lived rich lives."
He has published two books, A Funny Thing About Teaching and It’s Not About Winning.
Writing as a form of reflection
By Jack Rightmyer
Back in the 1970’s I went to college with the dream of being a writer. I figured I’d start out as a newspaper writer and then after a few years move on to magazines like Time or Newsweek. After living this glamorous and exciting life for 10 years I’d be ready to settle down and write my bestselling works of fiction. I’d probably write stories set in Europe with big issues of poverty, war and prejudice, but the stories would be more character driven than plot driven. They’d be literary bestsellers.
The only problem was my college had no journalism degree program. They had some journalism courses, which I took, but to get a degree I’d have to declare some different major. An English major meant I’d have to read too many dull poems like The Fairie Queen, so I chose Education as my major. I had some excellent high school English teachers, and I’d feel proud telling them how I had majored in English Education.
Being an English Education major meant I could take a lot of English classes. I loved reading, and reading a book by Dickens never seemed like a homework assignment to me. I also loved writing. There were some fun English professors at my college who loved getting classroom debates and discussions going. I loved that.
But I wasn’t the most organized college student. Once, as a junior, I was taking a cheery course called “Death and Dying.” We did a lot of reading on death and grieving, and we even had to go to a nursing home and interview some elderly people about their lives.
In one of the last classes, the professor said, “Well, that was a great conversation we had. I’m so glad you had such strong opinions about that Raymond Mooney book. Pass up your final projects, and we’ll meet for our last class on Thursday.”
Everyone in the class began taking out reams of paper from beneath their chairs. Were they playing some sort of practical joke on me? I took out my notebook and found the syllabus for the course. Right there in front of me on this date it said in capital letters FINAL PROJECT DUE, and it listed about twenty different things you could
A young high school English teacher named Jack Rightmyer
write, read, create, film or draw. It was actually a very creative assignment, one that I normally would have enjoyed doing, but I completely forgot about it.
I walked up to the professor and told him, “I was typing my paper this morning and my typewriter jammed. Could you give me an hour to re-do the paper?”
“No problem, Jack.” he said. “I’ll be in my office all afternoon.”
What a screw-up, I thought, as I raced out of that class and back up the hill to my dorm.
I sat at my somewhat cluttered desk, turned on the electric drone of my Smith-Carona, and then thought, ‘What am I going to write?’ The course was on death and dying, and I had very little experience with that topic. Death, death, death, dying, death, I kept thinking. I checked my watch. I said I’d get the paper to him in an hour, which meant I had only fifty minutes left, and that’s when the idea came to me. I could write about Anthony.
For three summers I worked as a maintenance man at a nursing home in Albany, painting rooms, mowing lawns, doing landscaping, and Anthony was this gentle old guy who lived there and loved feeding the birds every morning. He must have weighed all of ninety pounds, and even on the hottest, most muggy day he’d still be outside walking around in a sweater.
Anthony was always friendly, and he’d ask about my college and what courses I was taking. I never heard him complain, and he always had a smile on his face.
I began writing my paper, and I described all these qualities about Anthony, and then I explained what happened on my last day of work that particular summer. It was late August, one of those absolutely perfect summer days we sometimes get in upstate New York. As usual Anthony was feeding the birds in the morning, and I walked up to him and told him this was my last day.
“Back to college in New York,” he said with his usual enormous smile. “I used to live in New York. I lived in Brooklyn, in the Flatbush section.”
Every time we talked about New York, he’d always inform me that he once lived in the Flatbush section. “What a beautiful day to go for a walk,” Anthony said, and then he pulled his heavy sweater tight around him and shuffled away holding bread crumbs to feed more birds.
I was at lunch when word came to us out in the maintenance garage that Anthony had not reported in for his daily medication. “They want us to go out and search for him,” said our boss Jerry. “He might be a bit confused. Maybe he got lost.”
We broke up in three groups of two and wandered around the grounds of the nursing home. Occasionally we’d yell out his name, but mostly we just walked around the sunny grounds. He wasn’t in the grassy, lawn area where he always fed the birds. Whenever we came upon anyone we’d ask if they had seen him, but none had.
I was enjoying this opportunity to walk these enormous grounds on such a perfect day. It was so much better than mowing a lawn or digging a ditch. I knew that we’d eventually find Anthony, and I had only a few more hours to work and then I’d be home packing for my upcoming school year. I was already looking forward to seeing all my college friends, and that’s when I saw some medical people, nurses, a doctor, and they were running toward the stream about one hundred yards ahead of us.
“They found him,” said a nurse over her shoulder. “He’s in the stream.”
I began running over there. Jerry stopped me. “I found him. He fell into the stream. He’s dead. He slipped on that grass over there.”
I could see where the grass had fallen away and down below was a stream with rocks and running water. It was a pretty steep drop to the stream. An ambulance with its siren screaming pulled into into the nursing home parking lot. EMTs jumped out and raced down the hill to the stream.
We all stood around not knowing what to do. I could see Anthony’s body far below. From this distance, his body looked like a store mannequin. The nurses and a doctor were standing around shaking their heads.
Sitting in my dorm, I wrote about that experience and how it made me feel. It reminded me how quickly our fortunes can change. We can be admiring what a beautiful day it is and then seconds later it could all change. Knowing Anthony the way I did, I’m sure he just wanted to walk over and see how beautiful that stream looked and hear the water rushing over the rocks. It was an absolutely perfect day, and the grass gave out and he fell. I hope he didn’t suffer.
And that’s what I wrote about and writing about that experience finally gave me the opportunity to grieve.
The tragedy happened on my last day at work and a few days later I was back at school and taking classes and seeing my friends. I had pretty much forgotten Anthony. As I wrote that paper, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know anything about him, what kind of work he had done, if he had ever been married, why he wanted to feed the birds every day.
Years later I had an opportunity to interview young-adult author Walter Dean Myers and he told me one of the reasons he enjoyed writing, “it gives me the opportunity to reflect on my life and the people I’ve met, and when I write about these experiences I can relive them and feel them. Most people never have a chance to do this or they do it in a very superficial way.”
The paper I wrote on Anthony gave me a chance to reflect on him as a person, at least what I knew about him, and on his death and when I was done writing I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t even care about getting a grade for this paper. It had been satisfying to just write it all down.
And that’s why I wanted to be a writer. I had dreams of writing stories and magazine articles that would move people and make them stop their busy lives and reflect on something of importance. As I wrote that paper I realized that Anthony in his own way had been important to me those three summers I worked at that nursing home. I enjoyed seeing him every day and speaking with him.
I also learned a valuable lesson about writing. Sometimes my best writing is not for publication. Sometimes my best writing is a reflection about a person or a time.
If I had not forgotten that college homework project, I may have forgotten Anthony, who wore sweaters on the hottest days of the summer and fed the birds with bread crumbs every day and always greeted me with a smile and told me that he had once lived in Flatbush.