It was a pleasant surprise to learn earlier this year that my former department chair at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, Dr.Paul O’Brien, was publishing a memoir after retiring from his forty-seven year teaching career. Paul, pictured to the left at a book signing at ND-BG last night, was one of my earliest mentors, and a true Christian gentleman. I learned a lot from Paul, and as I anxiously await picking up his book and devouring it, completely enjoying the shared references and wit and wisdom of its author, I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned from OB.
One: be human. I started at ND-BG in September of 1995, after their former eighth grade teacher (and the competition that beat me out for the spot only a few short weeks prior to my start) decided to take the safer route as an insurance salesman. I met Paul in his classroom on a Friday afternoon of that first week, where he gave me my textbooks and rosters. We were sitting in the ubiquitous rocking chairs in his room, room 6, on a patch of carpet covering the hard tile floor, chatting about the requirements of teaching three sections of eighth grade and two sections of seventh grade and what his expectations were. It was a really pleasant conversation. I left scared by the task in front of me but relieved by the warm, smiling Irishman that was going to be my boss. At the end of the first week, after many ups and downs, Paul poked his head in my door and asked, “Coming back next week?” He did it for the first month of my employment. It still makes me chuckle. later, after we became friends and played golf and drank beer and could smile about that moment, he told me that he knew I would make it, but he liked to joke with me and keep it light. I learned from those moments with Paul that we are human, and that a warm smile and handshake go a long way in making those you work with feel at ease.
Two: Literature is Powerful. I mean I always knew that, right? I did my six years of English education. I read the books. I hammered through Richardson and the Piers poet and Blake and Joyce and, well, you get the idea. But I guess I got the lesson from Paul the backhanded way. I had written a story called “Lighthouse” and was anxiously trying to get it published. After the first few rejections returned to me by mail (no electronic submission in 1995), I asked Paul to read it and give his opinion. Now, as means of preface, the story has an epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It’s from “The Dry Salvages,” and I rewrite it here for reference:
“Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;”
–T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages
Paul started off his critique one afternoon after school by saying, in his famously understated way, “Gee, you know, I’m a pretty big Eliot fan. I think if you’re going to quote The Four Quartets you need to make sure it’s really good.” He went on to give me a really solid critique, things I hadn’t seen and things I needed to do in order to get the story in shape for publication. I listened. I made the changes. The story went on to be published in the now defunct Arbutus magazine. My first publication. Now, whenever I use an epigraph, I make sure the story is as good as it can be, because people love literature, and some editor may really love the quote I’m using at the head of the story I’m submitting, and if the story turns out not to live up to the epigraph’s quality, well, then it probably won’t get published. Of course, the myriad discussions we had about literature over the three years I worked for Paul had a little to do with my appreciation of the written word, and also are directly related to my bringing texts like Beloved and The Things They Carried to my current district.
Three: Stay Connected. Paul’s career spanned nearly five decades. The man made lots of friends. Like a local Kevin Bacon, we all can count our six degrees of separation from OB (although in English education, it’s probably closer to three!). He would from time to time just shoot me an email or see me out at a school event (always knowing where I was teaching and saying “I’m hearing good things about you out there…”), and then go on to discuss people I may know in my travels. Some of the people I’ve met through Paul I have become friends with, some I have had the honor of learning from/with, and some have come in and been colleagues at the Cole Summer Writers Institute. I thank him for all of these things, but this especially.
And, lastly: Four: Love What You Do. Antonio Delgado, a graduate of Gibbons (I taught and coached his younger brother, Kito) said this at Paul’s retirement dinner:
“Teaching was never Doctor O’Brien’s job. It’s always been his calling. He was made to do exactly what he’s been doing. How awesome is that? To do what you were meant to do. To be what you were meant to be. Is that not what we all hope for the most? To discover why we are here? To know our true purpose? Doctor O’Brien personifies that deepest hope come true; he is the embodiment of that hope in all of us.”
~Antonio Delgado at the Nov. 20, 2014 Retirement Dinner
I can’t say it any better than that. Paul loves teaching. I loved working for him. I have tried to bring my own love for teaching and writing and literature to work with me every day, and it is sometimes hard to do that, trust me. I hope I succeed. I will not have a forty seven year career, I know that, but I hope in the time I do have that I can have a fraction of the impact that Paul has had on his students, colleagues, and friends.
Thank you, Paul, for the guidance and support and love. You started me off, and I owe you a huge debt of gratitude for that.
© 2016 – 2017, Brian Stumbaugh. All rights reserved.