Mr. Engberg failed to teach me American History.
This failure was not his fault: In 1987 when I took his junior year-level US History course, I was a mediocre student with a well-established habit of not applying myself. He did his best, and I did not.
Despite my laziness and preoccupation with all things teenager, we navigated the curriculum throughout the school year (with him encouraging me to study more, work harder, and me not really doing either) right up until he convinced me to go on the yearly trip to the Yosemite Institute. Two of my closest friends and most of my classmates were going, so I succumbed to the totality of the pressure and went.
As I’ve gotten older (and I mean a lot older) it’s become progressively more difficult to describe exactly how that one week in the Yosemite Valley impacted me—transformed me—and significantly altered the trajectory of my life.
(Quick aside: I’m not sure about the rest of you, but the trajectory of my life looks less like a straight, ever-elevating line and more like a half-masticated spaghetti noodle thrown against the wall by a crazed yet god-like toddler.)
Anyway, I’ve become jealous, protective, hoarder-y of the few memories I still have of the Yosemite experience, and words fail worse and worse with each attempt to capture why that trip was so important, so vital, so essential. I’m not going to bother.
Expressing gratitude is another matter. I never got to say ‘thank you’ to Mr. Engberg. Not in the way or ways that matter. And the fact that I won’t ever be able to communicate this as an adult and in person to him is a tragic missed opportunity.
Mr. Engberg, I know it’s too late, but here it is:
Thank you for seeing me.
Thank you for hearing me.
Thank you for insisting that I had worth and value and something to contribute to this world.
Thank you for giving me the wonder of trees and mountains and streams.
Thank you for showing me—cliché though it may be—that life has no through-line, no destination, only the switch-back journey and those few precious trail-markers we occasionally find to guide our way.
Thank you for informing me that VWs are as awesome to drive as they are traumatizing to maintain.
Thank you for modeling for me that it is our connection to our friends, to our families, that inspire our actions and our service.
Thank you for being a part of my life.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. Engberg, you did what only the best teachers do: you provided a learning opportunity that finally got through to me. An opportunity that revealed a vast, complicated and beautiful world, and my place within that world.
I am forever grateful to you for this. And with the glaring exception of junior-year American History, I am and will always be your student.