It's strange that of all the images I cherish of Mr. Murphy, the one that remains the most vivid is of his palsied arm.
I remember the evening was dreary, probably after a late rehearsal, and I had just helped Mr. Murphy into his car so his son could drive him home. Murphy’s face was uncharacteristically fatigued, and his right arm hung lifelessly at his side. I had to lift it myself and place it nonchalantly on his lap before slamming the door.
As his car sped away, I felt my first pang of worry, the startling realization that The Great Mr. Murphy--icon, legend, god--was in fact oh so terribly mortal. He died two months later.
I could never pity Mr. Murphy, despite all his ailments. He made sure of that the first week of Freshman Speech class. He explained matter-of-factly how Polio had struck him as a young man, leaving him captive in his wheelchair, harnessed to a respirator. A few days later, in the middle of one of his lectures, he abruptly disconnected the respirator tube, stood shakily up, and limped to the podium. When he saw our eyes grow wide in astonishment, he feigned surprise. “Oh, didn't you know I could walk?” Then he grinned. The joke was on us. No, no one could pity Mr. Murphy.
Everyone respected him, though. In addition to Speech, he taught Government, and managed all the school's fund raising. But it was his genius as a drama director that made his fame.
Mr. Murphy could deftly manage a pompous choreographer, an emotional music director, an unsteady conductor, and a cast and crew of well over a hundred immature students. He instilled in us all a deep love of the theater. More importantly, he taught us discipline, synergy, and pride. A good amount of my high school education, and virtually all of my growing-up took place after school, on his stage.
It wasn't easy for him, of course. Boy, could he lose his temper! All too often he'd defy his respirator and bellow out a “Shuuuuut uuuuuuuup!” loud enough to silence even a hall-full of unruly teenagers.
Nor was I an angel. “Ellison, you're a damn ham,” Mr. Murphy would growl, trying to put me in my place. Once he called backstage during a scene change, shrieking over the headphones, “You lose character on stage again and I'll lower the curtain!” He would've, too. I idolized him, but feared him just as much.
My senior year he gave me the lead in the spring musical. Then he beckoned me to his wheelchair. “I know you'll do fine, Dave,” he encouraged me. “But don't forget: No one is indispensable. Not you. Not even me. The show will go on without us, so we can't get full of ourselves.”
I wonder if he already knew he’d soon fulfill his own prophecy.
I dedicated all my performances to Mr. Murphy--not just the ones that Spring, but all my succeeding roles as an actor and a teacher. I still can't ham it up without thinking of him.
It's not just because he died. In spite of a terrible physical fate, he worked tirelessly, joyfully, always in the service of others. And in doing so he didn't teach me merely speech or government or drama. Mr. Murphy taught me how to live.
When I was a freshman in college, and spied the specter coming down the hall, he frightened me.
Absurdly tall, with a large shock of unkempt black hair and a deeply lined, forbidding face, he swung his cane relentlessly to and fro in front of him. He seemed a bizarre morphing of an Edgar Allen Poe horror story, and an elongated, dreary E1 Greco painting.
However, his gaping, vacuous eyes, which were forever tearing, as if from some terribly somber vision they alone could behold—yes, his eyes were the most unnerving. "Poe" was an apt name for him. Pity the poor undergrad who had him for a professor!
The first day second semester, I gasped silently when Poe entered my humanities seminar and, wiping his sightless yes, introduced himself as Stephen Rogers, the instructor.
By spring break, however, I had a new name for him: "Tiresias," the blind seer, the implacable prophet. It had quickly become obvious that it was I, not he, who was blind.
Patiently, sagely, Tiresias opened my eyes to The Great Books—works by Thucydides, Homer, Dante, Descartes Kant, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Nietzsche —the "dead white men" now in such disrepute.
I still recall as if it were yesterday his haunting reading of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland"—"April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain...."
For the first time, I began to appreciate the tremendous beauty of words and the power of the ideas they conveyed, even though I could still only barely understand them.
The next fall I changed my major to the liberal arts. "The arts of symbol-making and symbol-using," Tiresias explained, "the symbols we use to describe and ultimately to create our world, and ourselves."
"Pre-Unemployment," my father lamented dryly. But Tiresias won out. You see, he awed me.
Indeed, I was afraid to speak during my first few courses with him. Who wouldn't be in the presence of a prodigy who could nonchalantly recite obscure epic poems in five languages?
But, through a persistent mix of cajoling, goading, and easy laughter, Tiresias drew me out, igniting all the passion and curiosity I hadn't even known I possessed. Eventually he couldn't shut me up, and often accused me of throwing "intellectual hand-grenades" in the midst of many class discussions.
Finally, one day it was I who insisted on reading aloud a passage from Plato's "Apology," Socrates' stoic response to the judges who'd sentenced him to die: "Death has caught me, the old man. Evil has caught you, the young. Now, I must suffer my fate, and you must suffer yours….”
"That was very fine, David," Tiresias commented after a pause.
"Thanks, Doc," I responded flippantly. And the nickname stuck. Doctor Stephen Rogers, alias "Doc," coached me through my final, tortuous 40-page senior essay on The Psalms. He engendered within my soul a fierce love of learning, a deep belief in the potential nobility of Man. And he gently nudged me in the direction of "the most honorable of all professions," teaching.
Poe, Tiresias, Doc . . . He was my nightmare, my idol, and in the end my friend. He didn't just teach. He inspired. And that is what education is all about.
“Isn’t that right, Mr. Ellison?”
Father Kirby’s photograph appeared on the final page of my high school’s newsletter. He still wore the same white lab coat, and seemed on the verge of yet another dissertation on the intricacies of subatomic particles. I quickly scanned the accompanying column for news of his latest accomplishment, only to learn he had recently passed away.
I hadn’t thought of Father Kirby once during the many years since I’d left his high school Physics class. Nonetheless, I had to sit for a long time and sadly reminisce.
I wondered if he’d remembered me. I was the short kid who sat in the first row, just by the door. I had this terrible habit of falling asleep almost every day. (That’s why Father Kirby sat me in front.) I couldn’t help it! No matter which class I had after lunch, I would always nod off for fifteen minutes or so.
Every once in a while Father Kirby would awaken me with a loud, “Isn’t that right, Mr. Ellison?”
I’d blurt out a confused, “Yes, sir!” Usually, I’d just agreed to something quite absurd, and everyone would laugh. I deserved it.
He probably thought I hated Physics. Actually, it was my favorite class. I had always been bored with math. The equations seemed to have no purpose or practical application. I merely plugged in the numbers mechanically, disinterestedly.
Father Kirby, though, taught me to use those apparently meaningless equations to precisely describe the world around me, and even to accurately predict how worlds light years away must behave. I marveled that all the galaxies paid homage to the same mathematical laws. In short, I was fascinated. (At least when I wasn’t snoring.) I wish I’d told him so.
I recalled one day when Kirby had supervision duty during lunch. He paced up and down the aisles of tables, oblivious to the din, lost in thought. I watched him make one circuit around the cafeteria, and wondered: What was it like to be a priest, without a family? Was he lonely? Didn’t he get tired of conducting the same experiments year after year? What did he do for fun? (Did he ever have fun?)
For that one, brief instant, I possessed enough maturity to see Father Kirby as a person. I suddenly realized I liked him. The moment of insight passed fleetingly, though, and I went back to throwing my Jell-O across the table.
On the last day of school, Father Kirby offered us seniors some sage advice (which we promptly forgot), and wished us all a heartfelt good-bye. Then the final bell rang. Why didn’t we stop to thank him, or at least shake his hand? Instead, with a joyous “Free at last!” we dashed out without so much as a glance in his direction. We left him in that silent classroom, to muse upon our ingratitude, alone.
Now, so many years later, I finally recognized my debt to Father Kirby. But, of course, it’s too late for a belated “Thank you.” What a shame.
I suppose it’s only normal. After all, my students are no different. I can only hope that a few of them will likewise remember me one day. Perhaps there’ll even be one who will become a teacher, and honor me, just as I will try to honor Father Kirby: She will carry on.
“Isn’t that right, Ms. Fletcher?”