Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passing of a Teacher

Last week we learned of the death of perhaps the most beloved academic teacher at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Dallas Russell taught my son math during Zach's tenure at LACHSA. He also taught my oldest stepson who is a senior this year, and would eventually have taught my youngest stepson, now a freshman. 

He was a mountain of a man. His large, expressive face was almost always smiling. Not just smiling, but more like exploding with joy. He was a stutterer. Yet when he fought to bring forth the word he sought, his voice took on an almost syncopated rhythm. When Zach arrived at LACHSA, he, too had been in speech therapy for a slight stutter. Mr. Russell helped him realize that it could be overcome.

His classes seemed like they could actually be fun. On Back To School Night, his presentation was always the most interesting, and I always looked forward to math period. That could never be said of any other academic class, I'm afraid. He was always uplifting his students. Even when they were average, he called them "Champions," or "Math Jedi Masters." I doubt that any student ever left Mr. Russell's class feeling unsuccessful. He had the power to empower. 

Even though he was not a member of the arts faculty, he attended every performance any student ever gave. Zach formed a theater company his senior year, and the summer after graduation, Mr. Russell came to see their premier production. He came to the next one, as well. He knew his support was needed, not just in the classroom, but backstage after a kid had poured his heart out for his art.

He was funny, too. He never shied away from a good joke on himself, and was not afraid to look foolish in front of his students. At "Moondance," the annual LACHSA film festival that showcased the work of the students, he was always featured in the opening short, along with other teachers. His stuff was always the funniest. Because he wasn't part of the arts faculty, his work always seemed to have more honesty and sweet innocence than the acting teachers he shared the screen with.

The last time I saw him was just before school started. We were standing in separate checkout lines at Pavillions in South Pasadena. "Hey, Mr. Russell!" I called over to him. He didn't respond. He was staring into space, as though contemplating a very heavy subject. In retrospect, it looked like he was gazing into eternity. I finally got his attention, and we talked about Zach, and my stepsons. I told him to look out for the younger one, and he promised to take care of him. We continued talking into the parking lot, and he reflected on what a special time of year the beginning of school always is. He shared with me that he had just been thinking about that when I had called to him. We said our "See ya laters," got into our cars and drove off into the night.

The number of kids Mr. Russell touched in his teaching career is probably immeasurable. I'm sure they must all remember him vividly. I was only around him for a few minutes at a time and he left an indelible impression on me. Good teachers can do that. You may like them or loathe them; love them or hate them. You might even make fun of them behind their back. In the final analysis, though, they touch you. 


See ya later, Mr. Russell. Your like will not pass this way again.


1 comment:

  1. I taught with Dallas.( And knew your son) He was too good for this world I guess. What a guy.Thanks for honoring him. David N. Schwartz