Saturday, December 3, 2011

James "Pierre" Smith, RIP

Most high school teachers you have for one year; the potential exceptions tending to be in the music and language departments. I took French for four years at Wallenpaupack Area High School with a guy named Jim Smith, who died this past Thursday.

To his face we called him Mr. Smith. Behind his back we always called him "Pierre." He loved all things French. He was a Pennsylvania boy and a card-carrying member of the NRA; but he also loved Paris and saw no contradiction there. He introduced me to quiche, brie, escargots, crusty baguettes, Bordeaux, and le petit prince. I learned far more from him than how to say my name and buy a train ticket in Paris: he introduced me to the world.

When I was a freshman, he was offering a trip to London and Paris. The trip was supposed to be for upperclassmen but he needed another kid to make the trip happen and he asked me, and my parents, if I could go along. (I suppose he thought I was mature enough!) I went, and for a small-town fifteen year old it was a life-changing experience I still recall with great fondness.

In my senior year we were studying existentialism and he asked the local Methodist minister to come in and make a "guest lecture" on Sartre and Camus to our class. I was also a Methodist, in a different congregation served by the same pastor. Edgar Singer was new to town, but he came in and talked to us about things I didn't know previously that ministers knew anything about: big existential questions, philosophical questions that wrestled with meaning and purpose. Edgar Singer told us that in addition to Camus and Sartre, who had much to offer, there were also Christian existentialists like Kierkegaard who, while not French, were worth getting to know. It was a formative moment for me and a memory I went back to when I first read Kierkegaard in college and began feeling a call to ordained ministry. Because of that moment (and others like it) I never felt that "fear" that some Christians have of learning, and philosophy, and questions. Jim Smith indirectly played a key role in making that happen.

In Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons, there is this famous exchange:
Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
Indeed! Merci beaucoup, Pierre.

1 comment:

  1. Rich-

    Your brother Jim sent me this link. Beautiful. I am the current French teacher at Wallenpaupack. Mr. Smith was also my teacher. He was my inspiration. I still teach le Petit Prince every year and think of him each time. He will be missed.

    Patti Frey