One of the two individuals which were in the dedication of Rivers End was Mark Hershnik.
No teacher I had prepared me for my future as Mark Hershnik. I spent two years in his English classes at Robert H. Brown Middle School in Madison. It was a fairly undistinguished school in a town full of strong schools. A place were bullying and family history played as much of a role in a student's standing as their grades, most of my memories of that school aren't pleasant. But each day in English, we got a dose of grammar and literature which was far ahead of the typical middle school level, forcing us to be better readers and writers. Sometimes we got a belly laugh, like the time Mr. Hershnik told the story of training a parrot he was pet sitting to say "bullshit". Sometimes you got a lesson in morality, but never in a preachy or forced way; these lessons were by the example in literature we read.
The homework, quizzes and tests were hard. I remember pulling a 100 on a test about prepositions and how the test was worded to actually find what words were acting as prepositions, not just words that "are prepositions". Grammar geeks unite. I remember the group projects were challenging. We had one group project on "A Man for All Seasons" where we ended up re-enacting a scene from the movie. Then there were the recitations. Maybe all this doesn't sound so exciting, but the magic in his teaching is that it was never boring. Other than the music classes, it was the most engaging middle school class I took. I would actually look forward to it. You'd never knew what demeanor he would have from class to class. He could be a total goof ball, attracting the attention of the other teachers (who could hear him easily do to the wonderful "open floor plan" at Brown - it was a horribly designed building). He could be dead serious and intimidating. It could change in the spur of the moment, like it did the time he overheard a student make a racially insensitive comment in the middle of class one day.
Mr. Hershnik wanted to teach. He wanted to be there. I don't think a lot of people, students or teachers, wanted to be in that building when I was there. I'd read that he'd given up the chance for a high-paying financial career after falling in love with teaching while substituting during college. And he didn't just want to be there, he also wanted to make the students better. The high school in Madison also had some great English teachers when I was there. I think there job was made a bit easier with the students who had gone through Mr. Hershnik's classes. I'd seen Mr. Hershnik in the high school once after I'd started writing for the local weekly newspaper in town and he'd asked me to come by and speak to his class about it. I was pretty surprised as the local paper really wasn't that big of a deal, but I do remember him having a former student of his who wrote for the television show "The Wonder Years" come in and hand out copies of scripts from the episode that would be on that night. He was proud of his former students' accomplishments. He had art work of former students up in his classroom, including the body-length sketchy of a preppy alligator that was up on his wall every year. It described him perfectly.
I remember the last time I ever saw Mr. Hershnik at a grocery store in Madison. His back was turned to me, I was in a rush, so I didn't say hello. This had to be about 10 years after I graduated high school and another 4 since I was in his class. Much like Brian Caldwell (another major influence on my writing, who I last saw at a grocery store just down the road from my house) I regret not having one last talk with him. The similarities between the final "encounter" I had with two of my biggest influences in writing is eerie. Lesson learned - engage people you see, because you never know when and if you will get a chance to do it again.
In 2008, after an unreported absence, Mark Hershnik was found dead in his house due to natural causes. Anyone who'd gone through the public schools in Madison was shocked. No one would picture such an energetic and charismatic educator passing away so young. As I was writing this, many of my incidental memories of Mr. Hershnik as a teacher popped into my mind. I don't think I would have completed "Rivers End" without some of the things I learned over those two years of middle school English, sentence structure, variation - telling a story. I wrote a descriptive piece in his class once about attending my first baseball game, how the green of the field was blinding after being in the dark hallways of the old Yankee Stadium working my way up ramps to the seats. I remember him circling it in red three times and writing underneath it "More Like This !!!"
Writing this also makes me miss him.
A couple of great tributes I found to Mr. Hershnik on the web:
From the Daily Campus at UConn
Knights of Columbus
Find A Grave
Have you ever visited the grave of a celebrity or idol? Not a monument, nor a national park site dedicated to a politician or leader but the actual grave?
Life in baseball put me in Oakland last week for the opening day of the season and the baseball hours meant most days I was free until lunch time before I had to be at the park for night games. There’s much to see in the bay area so I spent time explorer Berkeley, San Francisco and Marin County by car and foot – all interesting places in their own right, if only seen (mainly) from the window of a rental car. I mentioned my morning freedom to a friend of mine in the bay area who met up with me at a game. Knowing that I was just as big as a fan of baseball as he, he suggested I visit the grave of Joe DiMaggio in Colma, fairly close to the South San Francisco BART stop. The next day time was available in the morning, so I headed across the bay from where I stayed in Emeryville.
The stories about DiMaggio transcend baseball. He was married to the most desirable woman in America, Marilyn Monroe (whom he would leave a rose on her grave many times after her untimely death). Mrs. Robinson – the Simon and Garfunkel song – was a generational coming-of-age, just like the character in the movie, for many baby boomers. After Babe Ruth, Joltin’ Joe may be the most famous ballplayer of all time, maybe the most famous athlete other than Ruth. As a Yankee fan, DiMaggio’s name brings to life the song about his 56-game hit streak (basically the cliché for all records that will never be broken), a time when the Yankees played in the series and won titles almost every year. DiMaggio is just as famous to Yankee fans of my generation for his appearances at Old Timer’s Day and other team functions. Joe was brought out by The Boss whenever it was an important occasion, almost like he was Steinbrenner’s best suit or lucky marble. DiMaggio was famous for elegance and class during his post-baseball life. He probably heard the whispers of “There goes Joltin’ Joe” in the voices of people he walked by for most of his adult life. When he died, generations of baseball fans, not just Yankee fans, saw part of the game disappear into a vault of memory and yesteryear. Another friend of mine said he’d read a book that said DiMaggio was signing baseballs for cash in his dying hours and smiling at thinking of how much they would be worth, although he had very little family left to enjoy the wealth. DiMaggio, from a baseball family, had one son who died the same year as his father (just like long time contemporary Ted Williams, who also had a son die young). While critics of cryogenics point out the alleged mishandling of Williams remains, DiMaggio lies quietly in Colma, a city known by locals to be filled with cemeteries. If you are in Colma and you are still alive, you are lucky, my friend who recommended the visit said to me. It’s mostly cemeteries - in fact according to the article linked below, 73% of the town is zoned as cemeteries. My friend said he was shocked how back east there were cemeteries everywhere but they were all localized in the bay area and many in that one town.
I entered Holy Cross Cemetery through Mission Street, up a slight hill. The plots are laid out I a grid and the first plots upon entry are giant, stately family vaults, some with benches and statues. That’s not where you will find Joe’s grave. Further up hill, the tombstones become more modest. At the first turnaround circle, there is one single parking spot that seems out of place. There’s also a small tree. The first word you’ll read if you look from the spot is “DiMaggio”. A few steps from the park, in the shade of the tree is Joe’s grave. It’s not much larger than the graves around it; people who died well before Joe and probably never thought they’d have so many visitors to their graves. The large silver-colored headstone bares a large grey cross. On the day I was there, people had left bats on either side (one, interestingly enough, aluminum) and along the bottom a row of baseballs of different ages and colors. One that stuck out (I only read the part visible) mentioned someone taking a journey to get to the grave and finally making it. Another was signed “To Joltin’ Joe”. Among those that visited these were tributes.
“Grace, Dignity and Elegance Personified” is the description of the plaque by the grave that bares his full name above. There is a small path around the grave. That’s it. Other than being the grave of a baseball great, there’s not much to separate it from the moments around it other than the gifts of visitors. Death is humbling, just like being in the presence of a legend. It is a place where all are humbled. Humbled that a man like DiMaggio would bow before death, almost against his legendary qualities. But he was human. He did strike out sometimes (although he homered more). The Yankees didn’t win the title every year he played.
Joe is buried alone. At first this made me sad that he had no wife next to him or other family members near by. After all, even in greatness, no one wants to be alone? Or do they? Upon second though, maybe this is exactly what he wanted, peace. Quiet. Just like the cemetery. Shortly after that, I heard bagpipes as a funeral began further down the hill.