Saturday, May 17, 2014

And that's irony, baby...

My high school speech coach and english lit teacher passed away last week.  I've been turning it over and over in my mind trying to figure out how to best memorialize him in the online universe of social media.  I really just want to explain to you what made him such a unique influence.  I've decided that I should write an essay that he might enjoy reading.  I've tried to incorporate all of the essential components...let's see if I can pull it off:

Tom Oglesby is dead.   

He died on the day that I finished reading the latest novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald.  

Zelda was a woman who was greatly misunderstood.  She had a strong creative voice which was often paralyzed by social expectations, mental illness and her husband.   Her real crime was that she was very good at many artistic mediums but great at none.  Her contributions to the infamous Lost Generation of late 1920's Paris are indisputable, but her own work in art, literature and ballet is largely disregarded.  Her legacy is almost entirely based on her struggle with schizophrenia, (a diagnosis that is now widely disputed), and the impact her illness had on her husband's work both positively and negatively. 

Mr. Oglesby
Tom Oglesby was also infamous, albeit on a much smaller stage.  He was that teacher whose reputation made underclassmen squirm with anticipation, and not the good kind.  He was terrifying and awe-inspiring.  And, his grading system was legendary.  In his class, it was possible to receive an F3.  That's F to the third power.  As in, you failed so badly, you actually failed your failure.  Now, to be fair, one could also earn an A++ but that's as "not as sexy" (a phrase he, himself might use to describe the A++.)

He was often misunderstood, as well.  It's not easy to be a quirky, liberal-minded literary scholar in a small, conservative Indiana town.  Unlike Zelda, he was a master of his craft.  His art resided in his ability to turn would-be high school wallflowers into oratorical power houses.  He believed ALL students had potential for greatness in some form or another.  And he was pretty good in bringing it to light. 

In the classroom, he utilized multiple mediums to illustrate that art and literature could be found everywhere.  He taught us the importance of details by forcing us to watch a 4-hour mini-series called The Martian Chronicles starring Rock Hudson.  We never read the book, but we did have to know how many times the phone rang in scene whatever before so-and-so answered it.  

He introduced us to transcendental thinking from the likes of Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau and he showed us how Civil Disobedience could change the world.   He called on us by an assigned number in the classroom long before Austin Powers made it comical.  During speech, he referred to us only by our last name. In fact, he might never have known that my first name is Rachel, he knew me only as Beher...which took two seasons for him to pronounce correctly.  

Most memorable to me was his keen appreciation for irony.  He would often end a lesson with a smirk and a punctuated, "And that's irony, baby!"  Last year I was waiting at a stop light and I noticed a church undergoing a huge expansion.  I happen to notice that outside they had placed a temporary placard advertising their latest sermon series.  It had a picture of the earth engulfed in flames superimposed over a clock and titled "Earth's Final Hour Is Near: Have you Prepared YOUR Spirit?"  I glance from the sign to the girders, beams and hard hats and say out loud, "And that's irony, baby!" It was lost on the seven-year-old in the back seat and garnered a roll of the eyes that would have put many of his students to shame.

Zelda Fitzgerald
In the years following the death of her husband, Zelda Fitzgerald was villified for her role in the lost potential of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The public wanted to know what her illness and instability had cost the literary world?  In reality, many of the characters from his books are based on Zelda and a number of passages from her diaries can be found in his novels, verbatim.  Eventually, the tide of public opinion turned and she was seen in a new role: Zelda the victim, Zelda the artist, Zelda the dancer.  She was finally much more than just the first, and last Flapper.

In the hours following the death of Tom Oglesby, hundreds of former students took to social media to eulogize the contributions that he made to the person they currently are.  Lawyers, policemen, marketing directors and mechanics all took to the keyboard to share their memories of the impact he had on each of their lives.  

I've been digging through the few relics I still possess from high school.  As I wallow in sentimentality, I'm shocked by how much I've forgotten and how little has survived.  I did, however, come across a hand-written script, among the newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and playbills.  It was an excerpt from the one-woman play, The Last Flapper.  The play is based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald and it was the first time I ever heard her story.  I'll never forget taking the packet and listening to the instructions to memorize it for Saturday's meet.  It was handed to me by Thomas W. Oglesby. 

And that's irony, baby.