I toyed with the idea of calling this piece “A Letter to Henry,” but that would have made it too personal, a subjective anecdote with little relevance for the individual reader. I’m aiming for universality in writing about something we — that includes me — should try more often. What we need to practice are simple, small acts of kindness for people we know and love, acquaintances and the “perfect strangers” who come fleetingly into our lives.
Having taught high school for 30-plus years, I am reminded of one evening during “Open House,” when parents visit school, follow an abbreviated schedule of their child’s daily routine, meet the teachers and hear about the courses. That evening, I was approached by a woman who looked too young to be the mother of a teenager. She told me she had come to represent her younger sister, who was in my class. I then recognized her as a former student who had been “difficult” and had dropped out at 16.
She said to me, “Ya know, even though I gave you a hard time, you were the only one of all my teachers who tried to talk me out of dropping out. I wanted to thank you and tell you that I will never forget what you tried to do.”
Which brings us to Henry Lees. Henry and I were fellow students at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. In 1963 we were both seniors, friendly with each other, but we really didn’t hang together. In February we had our “Senior Show,” a brilliant parody of “West Side Story” written by two students, Belle Weisenberg and Helene Glass. I was cast as Tony, a popular student who falls in love with a foreign exchange student, Maria. The school’s social scene was in upheaval because of this romance. Many of the show’s songs were adapted to our school: “When You’re a Jet” became “When You’re a Senior,” and “Dear Officer Krupke” became “Dear Kindly Dietitian.”
I got to sing the only song that was “untampered” with: “Maria.” I fancied myself a singer, and, at the time and for many years, I had a great desire to be an entertainer. (Soon after, I sang on Ted Mack’s “Amateur Hour,” losing to a man who played two trumpets at once.)
Singing “Maria” onstage by myself and in front of my peers caused great trepidation for me. I lost count of the times I sang/rehearsed this complicated song. I sang it whenever I got a chance, usually when no one was home or when I was in the bathroom, in and out of the shower.
For the play on Senior Day, I sang as best I could. As my classmates were applauding, I quickly walked offstage because I was in the next scene. Backstage, I could hear the applause wasn’t stopping. My friend Peter grabbed me by the arm and whipped me through the split in the drawn curtains. The applause grew louder as I bowed quickly, nervously, then jogged offstage again.
I’d had my “15 minutes of fame.” I didn’t become a professional entertainer, but I never regretted being an educator.
When I float through my high school yearbook, I pause at the page with Henry Lees’ photo. The short bio under his smiling face claims his likes and remembrances, notably “listening to Beethoven.” But it’s what he wrote to me that I love to reread: “Bob, Your Maria (song) was the best I’ve heard! Good Luck, Henry”
At 70-plus, I am still warmed by his kindness. I know my version of “Maria” wasn’t the best. But how wonderful of Henry to keep on saying that every time I turn to his picture. Simple words, grandiose kindness.
We all know that even little acts of kindness go a long way — it’s a cliché. But sometimes what we know is not what we’ve learned to practice. The way things are in our world, and especially in our country, calls for many little acts of kindness — some big versions, too.
Henry Lees, I don’t know where you are, if you still are. But I’d like to tell you this: Thanks for being so kind. Your friend, Bob.
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