It is always strange to see your teacher outside of school, especially when you are in middle school and the teacher is someone everyone is afraid of. His name was Merritt K. Sawyer. He was a scary-looking old man. Mr. Sawyer always wore a black suit and a white shirt, and walked with a pronounced limp. He was not a large man, but he had a certain presence that immediately made anyone in the room pay attention to him.
Mr. Sawyer lived in a scary house too. It was an old, dark green Victorian, with the yard perpetually dark due to a forest of huge, untrimmed oak trees crowding every inch of the property. Instead of a garage he had a full sized red barn with the boards sagging so much it looked like it would collapse any second. In the barn was his ancient Dodge Dart. Unlike everything else on the property, the car gleamed like it had just come out of the showroom.
The worst part was that Mr. Sawyer’s house was directly across the street from mine, although I never had any interaction with him outside of school. That is, until King School decided to save money by eliminating as many of the school buses as it could. Students who lived near teachers were told they would have to ride to school in a teacher’s car. That’s how Jimmy Sachs and I ended up riding in a shiny Dodge Dart every day with the most feared teacher in Connecticut.
Since it was his car, Mr. Sawyer got to choose the radio station, and all he every picked were news stations. National news, local news, business news. I had no idea all those stations even existed. And he insisted we all discuss the stories after we heard them. “It is important for a gentleman to be well informed,” he used to say.
Gentleman. It’s a word he used to say a lot. He seemed to be living in a different time period from the rest of the world. Jimmy and I didn’t want to be gentlemen. We wanted to be cool. How much more un-cool could you get than riding to school in an old car with an old teacher every day? But Mr. Sawyer wanted us to be gentlemen. When were not listening to the news, he lectured us on what it meant to be a gentleman. A real gentleman had to be intelligent and brave. You had to be physically strong and stand up for what is right . A gentleman is always polite. Not because he is subservient to anyone, but because he has the strength to be polite, when a lesser person would be rude or angry.
Now that we all car-pooled, Mr. Sawyer seemed to take more of an interest in the neighborhood. He started turning his lights on for Halloween, and my parents made me go tick-or-treating there. He had two kinds of treats you could choose from – Saltines or pennies (for UNICEF). People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but that is actually what he handed out on Halloween.
In February, we got a huge unexpected wet snowfall which looked like it might collapse the roof of Mr. Sawyer’s home. Jimmy and I were walking on the sidewalk when suddenly we heard Mr. Sawyer calling to us. There he was up on a flat section of his roof limping about with his bad leg and trying to push the snow off with a plastic broom. He looked like he would fall off any second.
When Jimmy and I went over with snow shovels, Mr. Sawyer met us at the door, thanked us profusely and invited us in. It was the first time either of us had ever seen the inside of his house. It was a beautiful house, with polished hardwood floors and lovely red curtains. Everything was spotlessly clean. He took us to the upstairs guest room, which had a large window from which we could climb onto the roof. The bed had a large, thick American flag draped on it. The type they put on the coffin of a soldier and then give the family. We were dying to ask about the flag, but of course did not. Was it from a family member? Had he been in the war? Is that why he had a limp?
After the day we had saved Mr. Sawyer’s roof from the snow, he seemed to loosen up on the morning drive a little. Sometimes he even let us choose a music station, although he could not help but comment on how bad our taste in music was. It was a long daily drive to the school, all the way from the beach section in Shippan Point where we lived, to the country in the hills.
The old Connecticut was dying and it was obvious even to us kids. There were still working farms, but every day a few more of them got sold and turned into tract housing developments. Each day we passed a an especially beautiful farm with rolling hills, and a lovely white farm house. On a particularly sunny spring morning I happened to say, “That’s a beautiful farm.” That was when Mr. Sawyer surprised me by revealing the only piece of information I was ever to learn about his past.
“Yes it is,” he said, “When I was a boy my father almost bought that farm; but he died about a month later so we never got it. A little boy sure misses his daddy.” It seemed so strange. It was the only emotion I had ever seen from him except for anger (when the kids at school were especially loud, or late for an assembly).
My morning rides with Mr. Sawyer ended when I graduated from middle school. Of course he was still my next door neighbor, and so I saw him outside raking leaves or washing his Dodge Dart. By the time I was a senior in high school, it was time for Mr. Sawyer to retire. Rumor was that he didn’t want to retire, but was being pushed out. The teachers and parents were having a retirement party on Saturday night for him and were going to present him with a rocking chair with a Princeton logo.
My parents had gone to the party since they had donated some money to the school. As usual, I was sitting at home doing nothing but watching T.V. when the phone rang. It was my father with an order for me. He sounded very angry and said, “Go over to Mr. Sawyer’s house and see why he isn’t here. We keep calling his house and there’s no answer. There are three hundred people here and that old fart hasn’t shown up!” He gave me a phone number and I promised I would call him back.
Mr. Sawyer’s house looked as dark and scary as I had ever seen it. I was afraid I was going to find him dead. It was a cold night with no moon, and the clouds were blocking any stars. I walked up the old wooden porch and rang the bell. Mr. Sawyer opened the door looking very old and tired.
“Gregory,” he said. “How nice of you to come by. Please come in.”
I followed him into the living room. Mr. Sawyer mas moving and speaking very slowly, almost as if he were in a daze. I followed him into the living room and he motioned for me to sit in a plush red chair. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a cheeseboard. “Please have some cheese and crackers and soda.”
The phone rang while he as pouring a 7-UP, and Mr. Sawyer ignored it while it rang twenty times before it finally stopped. As gently as I could I leaned forward and said, “I think that is the school. People are worried that you did not show up at your retirement party.”
“No they are not,” he replied wistfully. “They just want me out. And then what do I do? What do I do?” He had a look of real fear in his eyes. He was not the mean teacher, or the frightening man with the limp in a black suit. He was just an old man with no family, worried about what would come next.
Mr. Sawyer and I sat drinking 7-UP and eating sharp cheddar. Every once and a while the phone would ring and we would ignore it. Then he walked me to the door and shook my hand. “Thank you so much for dropping by,” he said solemnly.
I called back my father and said that Mr. Sawyer had a real bad stomach virus and would not be able to make the party. He had not answered the phone since he was in the bathroom most of the time. My father was still angry, but there was not much he could do about it.
After he retired, I continued to see Mr. Sawyer around the neighborhood driving in his perfectly maintained Dodge Dart. He still handed out Saltines and pennies every Halloween. One Spring the town had a junk pick-up, and I noticed that Mr. Sawyer had thrown out a rocking chair with a Princeton logo on it.
Once and a while I would drop by his house to see how he was doing. If the weather was warm we sat on the front porch of the old Victorian having cheese and soft drinks. We never spoke about the night of his retirement party. I still listened to all the news stations, so we conversed about world events while we looked out at the huge oak trees shading his yard. Just two Connecticut gentlemen.