Years ago Elwood Graber taught me a lesson that’s stayed with me to this day.
Mr. Graber was my Stryker High School chemistry teacher, but the most valuable things I learned from him had little to do with chemistry at all.
I quite clearly recall a particular chemistry lesson that had been a real struggle. When Mr. Graber gave us the test our entire class bombed big time, with most of us carding F’s, Mr. Graber was silent as he handed back the test papers. I prided myself on my grades, and I recall feeling sick as I looked at all the red on my test. I joined in the low groans and murmurs rising up in the room.
Although I have long forgotten the chemistry topic involved, Mr. Graber’s reaction at that moment is etched in my memory. He didn’t show anger. He didn’t yell at us. He didn’t so much as chastise us.
Instead, he apologized.
The fact that everyone did poorly on the test showed that he had failed to do his job properly as a teacher, Mr. Graber told us. Instead of registering the poor grades he threw out that test and started over on the lesson, going to the black slate chalkboard and clearly and carefully explaining the scientific principles involved.
After repeating the lesson, and asking time and again if there were any questions and making sure we all understood, he administered the test again. We did much, much better, and I still remember the pride and relief I felt when I saw the ‘A’ scrawled across the top of my test.
The life lesson Mr. Graber shared all those years ago has made me a better person ever since. He not only demonstrated it is OK to take responsibility when something turns out poorly, he taught me that others will admire you for showing courage when you do so.
Last week I saw Mr. Graber’s obituary in the Times. As I read that final summation of his life, the recollection of that test brought a bittersweet smile to my face.
As long as I live I will treasure the memories of Mr. Graber’s energy and sheer love of teaching that he displayed in the classroom. He would practically dance in front of the chalkboard as he wrote out the various chemical properties and equations and explained what they meant. The joy he found in what I considered to be dull scientific notations helped inspire me to succeed in one of my least favorite subjects.
A handful of years ago I had the pleasure of encountering Mr. Graber during an event at the old Stryker High School auditorium. I noticed right away the years had taken their toll physically, but had done nothing to dull the spark in his eye.
I sat down beside him for several minutes, as we shared memories and caught up with each other’s lives. As always Mr. Graber had kind words for me, telling me how much he enjoyed my writing and my columns and how much he appreciated having me for a student. I felt blessed to be able to tell him I always appreciated having him as a teacher, and to share my admiration for him.
It stings to lose someone from our formative years, even the people who have not been a part of our lives for a long time. I must confess that as I write this I’ve had to blink back a tear or two, and I realize quite deeply how much his widow and children must be hurting over the loss of such a wonderful man.
I find it ironic that one of my favorite teachers taught one of my least favorite subjects. School almost always came easily to me, yet I struggled with chemistry. That I can look back at that chemistry class with fond memories is a true tribute to the man.
To this day I can thank him for a clear picture of the impact each of us can have on the world simply by being glad to be alive and sharing that joy with enthusiasm, and with humility.
Mr. Graber, may you rest in peace.
Don Allison is an author, historian and retired editor of The Bryan Times. He can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com.