This past February, I attended a fundraiser for a community center serving a particularly challenged community. A friend is the new center director; those of us who had previously worked with her showed up in force. Our attendance of course was to help the center, but in truth, we really wanted to spend time together again and have it not be at a large table or obstructed by a monitor and keyboard.
The room was loud and crowded. Nods, smiles, handshakes, and hugs were exchanged. People clustered tightly and leaned into each other’s personal space to hear and be heard. At a small table, I greeted the mother of the center’s director, who is also a friend and strong leader in her own right, and she politely introduced me to the people at her table. I could not hear names and, to be honest, was not in the networking mindset. With the introductions, I did not strain to hear but nodded and smiled at the appropriate cues. After a bit of catching-up, I rejoined my friends a few feet away.
A few minutes later a woman from the table approached me. She said, “Did [she] say your name was Keith Look?” I affirmed, and she introduced herself again to me.
She said, “My name is _________ but you won’t recognize my last name. I was married to John Speed who I believe taught you in middle school.”
At that moment it was as if the room fell silent. My heart bubbled up to my throat. My eyes strained as hard as my ears to make sure I did not a miss a single syllable of whatever words would follow.
“You may know that John passed a few years ago, but I’ve always wanted to meet you,” she said. “John made handwritten notes in all of his books, texts, and materials – some about specific students. You were one of his favorites.”
With raw emotion tears welled up in my eyes. Mr. Speed was one of my very favorite teachers. My world stopped as memories of Mr. Speed flooded my mind. To be considered one of his favorites? Even now, it’s hard to fathom such an honor.
Mr. Speed taught 8th grade social studies for which the content was US History. At the time, my sense of social justice was just becoming part of my identity, and Mr. Speed could see it in me before I did. He would show me primary source documents that may or may not have been part of the day’s lesson. At the time I didn’t fully understand that these would be seeds of insight he planted in my brain. Most of the documents were tied to his family – a predominant family in the city but one that the modern era would both celebrate and scrutinize.
The documents illustrated the conflicted history of which Mr. Speed himself was reconciling. The Speeds were philanthropists but also owned slaves, and Mr. Speed’s own identity was born of that conflict and would be the reason he became a teacher rather than something more socially aligned to the family’s status. He shared his analysis along with the documents. Looking back, I wonder if he saw me as another person to carry forward a greater concern for the common good and to make sure causes for justice outlive any individual, family, or era.
For the years that followed, I thought of Mr. Speed only in the superficial ways that students reflect back on favorite teachers. But when I first entered the classroom as a teacher myself a decade later – a profession I entered “by accident” – I understood the series of events Mr. Speed helped set in motion for me. There I was, teaching social studies – civics – to 6th graders in a struggling area of west Baltimore, making sure that they understood not only the laws and systems of government but their impact on all people of our society with the evidence to prove it.
It bothers me that I never went back and visited Mr. Speed. In part I know I didn’t because most of his students revered him, and I assumed that there would be no way that my short tenure in his long career would be of any significance. Plus there were so many students stronger than I had been, students that had gone on to do fantastic things, including older siblings and cousins of mine that spoke of him with great respect. They would be the ones he would remember.
Now having spent 20 years in education, I get it. There are those students that I will never forget because of something I see in them that they may, or not just yet, see in themselves. That is the gift of teaching – and learning. In writing this post I pulled out an old yearbook to find a picture of Mr. Speed. In doing so, I found that he had signed my yearbook, wished good luck to me and my brother, and then concluded by saying, “You are a great friend.” My heart is again back in my throat, my eyes well up once more.
Thank you, Mr. Speed. May your immortal existence carried forth in my being – and in so many of your students – continue to live on in our words, actions, and lessons for generations to follow.