I used to have an apartment at Youngstoun, later Brandywine, directly across from Hagerstown Community College. While driving here and there, I would often see this guy jogging along the side of the road. He had a graying mop of hair that was always slick with sweat and wild from the wind. He was tan and very fit. He ran heel to toe in short, flat-footed steps, and looked to be in monstrous agony and nearing the point of exhaustion whenever I saw him. Two years ago I left the apartment and moved back in with my folks, and I never saw the guy again.
That is until a few weeks ago. Last week I had just left HCC after Sociology and was on my way to Ashley’s place when I saw him jogging. He looked just as vigorous and in just as much pain as I remembered. It made me smile. He was still here doing his thing. This time I noticed something familiar about him. It loitered in the back of my mind until history class that night, and then it hit me: the jogging guy was Ed Gift, my history teacher. I used to wonder as I drove by him what kind of person he was. I suppose we all do that sometimes, when a stranger catches our eye from a distance. We wonder what the person’s family is like, or what their interests are, or what their voice sounds like, or whether or not they’re an asshole. I’m not certain what I supposed the jogging guy was like, exactly. I’m sure of this much: I never imagined Mr. Gift.
Monday night he talked to us for twenty minutes before launching into the lesson. This is a one month, four night a week class, with 3000 years of human history to cover and presumably with no time to waste. But Mr. Gift doesn’t care. Not taking time to share with us about his life or ask about ours just wouldn’t be natural to him. From an initial discussion about our term papers, he segued into speculation of what people do with their college papers when they die – and what about jewelry? Are people buried with it? He told us about the massive volume of papers he has collected from thirty-seven years teaching social studies. When he retires, he told us, he is going to visit the yard sale of “one of those old army surplus guys,” purchase a flame thrower, and turn it on the piles of old tests and homework assignments that fill two closets and numerous filing cabinets in his office.
Getting back to the term paper, he spoke about plagiarism, and suggested that we do not turn in a paper we downloaded from the internet that morning. He said he is bothered by the idea of checking a student’s paper against a website to make sure it wasn’t copied. He trusts us. He told us he often wrote papers for his fellow students when he was in college. “Maybe it wasn’t exactly ethical,” he said, “but at least I, you know, made a few bucks.” He knows how tough it can be, he told us, especially when your strengths don’t lie with a certain subject. For him it was math. “I never even looked at the math tests I got back,” he told us. “I just tore them up and prayed I at least got a D.” He added cheerfully, “And, usually, I did.”
I know he attends church because he told us, but he is open-minded and unbiased. He’s never said “fuck,” but he sometimes casually drops in “damn” and “shit” when he addresses the class before the lesson begins. He seems just a half-step out of phase with the rest of us – not so much that he is an anachronism; just enough to make him a charming sort of oddball. He is the kind of person I wish could teach every class: endearing, patient and funny, always encouraging, and teeming with knowledge that touches everything required for the course and a fair bit else. He only works at HCC part-time, only in the summers. His real job is teaching history at Smithsburg High School. I’ll have to take someone else for HIS102 in the fall, and it’s a shame.