Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RIP, Mr. Foley

For three decades now, I have steadfastly recalled that I owe the fact I speak English to an event called the Battle of Hastings that took place in the year 1066 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer). That is something I will not forget until my dying day.

I remember it because on the first day of tenth grade, a man named Ed Foley looked across his classroom and said: "If you remember only one thing from the three years we are about to spend together, remember the year 1066." Then he went on to explain that year's significance.

The bottom line is that when Mr. Foley told you to remember something, you remembered it -- not just because you didn't want to let him down, but because it (whatever it was) truly was important and he always illustrated why.

Toiling away at St. Petersburg High School, the oldest public high school in Florida, Mr. Foley taught Honors World History to sophomores, AP American History to juniors, and AP European History to seniors. That is why he talked about "the three years we are about to spend together" on the first day of sophomore year: The expectation was that if you had the acumen to make it into the class he taught sophomores, you either had or would develop the wherewithal to remain his pupil through graduation.

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He continually referred to the teacher-student arrangement between him and his charges as "a three-year intellectual marriage," and he meant it.

Neither arrogant nor a control freak, he treated you and your intelligence with respect, which is something all teachers should do.

But he also made it clear he was in control, and did so without raising his voice or losing his temper, which is something else all teachers should emulate. In that respect, Mr. Foley set the tone on that first day of tenth grade when a bunch of smart teenagers sat before him for the first time, swelling with a bit of swagger now that they were no longer in the youngest class on campus. Minutes into his introductory talk to every batch of tenth-graders who ever sat before him, he would scan the room through his spectacles and unleash one of his classic Foleyisms by remarking: "You may be sophomores, but you are still sophomoric."

It was in his class on that hot day in 1986 that I learned the definition of sophomoric, which brings me to something else: Although he was a history teacher, I learned many things from him that had nothing to do with history. His knowledge and passion for teaching were so expansive that they had a spillover effect; you gleaned things from him that you would normally expect to pick up from other teachers in other subjects.

I am surprised it took me until high school to learn what pseduo means, and somewhat less surprised it took me until then to learn what quasi means, but when I did acquire the knowledge, it was not in English class but in Mr. Foley's history class; and I acquired it in the best of ways, for he liked to mash the words together and poke fun at snobs and charlatans by referring to them as "pseudo-quasi intellectuals."

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Since I just mentioned a classic Foleyism, allow me to point out another one: His penchant to talk about an upcoming test by saying it was "going to be Mickey Mouse." The obvious implication was that it would be easy.

Of course, none of his tests were easy. They were all challenging. But his point was clear: If you applied yourself by paying attention in class and studying after school, it wouldn't matter that it was hard. You would do well regardless.

One of my favorite of his quotes was not a Foleyism because he only said it once, but it displayed his panache. One day he left his glasses at home and wound up borrowing a colleague's extra pair. The colleague was a she, and the frames were distinctly feminine. Mr. Foley began class by explaining why he was wearing those particular glasses and quipping: "Just so you don't think I'm going to Stockholm for an operation."

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He was born in Queens back when Herbert Hoover was president, when the Great Depression was happening but still new enough that it had not yet "earned" the word "great."

His arrival at adulthood saw him serving in the Army during the Korean War, after which he attended and graduated college and answered his true calling by making his way into the teaching profession.

His first 13 years as an educator were spent in Newport, Rhode Island, but the bulk of his time in the profession was spent, much to the benefit of me and many other St. Pete teens, in sun-kissed Pinellas County, Florida.

Mr. Foley was what I would call a classic educator, born for the classroom rather than the staff room, existing for the students rather than the administrators. When I think of him I think of chalk dust and seriousness.

The gravity he brought to the subject he taught was acknowledged and repaid by his students, as evidenced by the fact that no one brought senioritis into his classroom. Having started the "three-year intellectual marriage" when we were 15, there was no way we were gonna cause it to end in divorce as we lazed off to college.

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I was born a history buff and have always loved the topic. I have often been appalled at how so many teachers/professors take this naturally fascinating subject and make it seem boring, how they take the epic story of humankind and reduce it to nothing more than a regurgitation of dates and names. Fortunately, Mr. Foley was not guilty of that academic crime.

When he talked about the Tatars running roughshod in mid-millennium Eurasia, their brutality was palpable... When he talked about Caesar declaring "the die is cast" on the banks of the Rubicon, you sensed the indelibility of his decision to lead his army across its waters... When he talked about John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, he did not hesitate to say Brown was "insane" but also on the right side of the slavery-abolition divide; and in so doing, he brought to light the fact that contradiction and dichotomy are very much a part of human progress.

And always, always, Mr. Foley connected the dots from past to present. He pointed out how the decisions made and actions taken at certain points in history impacted succeeding generations; how the steps then taken by each succeeding generation affected the ones that came next; how so many of the blessings we enjoy (or curses we despise) in our own time would not exist if not for the events of the past; and how we should therefore heed the past when deciding what steps to take in the present.

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At the end of it all, this is the thing about Mr. Foley: When those who were taught by him think about our high school years, he is always at the forefront of our memories. Without him, there would be no our own wonderful St. Pete High! as we knew it.

Mr. Foley passed away last Thursday at the age of 84.  Every single memory I just shared is mine, but not mine alone. In the days since he passed, I have seen some of them shared, in one form or another, by others on Facebook.

I have an extremely good friend from high school who I have not seen since Charles Barkley was still playing in the NBA. He now lives in Mark Twain's home town half a continent away. When I learned of Mr. Foley's death (thanks to another one of our St. Pete High Class of 89'ers) I shuffled the news to him via his wife on Messenger, and he proved my point by including these precise words in his response: "Will always remember 1066 because of him."

I hope Mr. Foley knew how much of an imprint he left on his students. I hope he knew that so many of them really did remember the year 1066.

I graduated from St. Pete High 27 years ago and did see him a couple times after I graduated, but I was still in college at the time. What I remember most about our final discussion -- in 1991, a mere two years later -- is that he treated me as an equal, not a subordinate. When the discussion turned to college football, he didn't have to think long to find an adjective to describe Auburn's players based on their weak late-season performance; he simply looked me in the eye and likened the Tigers to a particular anatomical vulgarity.

With one gutter word, he signaled that we were now peers, or at least nearly so. It felt more like we were Army pals in Korea than teacher-student in Florida.

There were many times over the last quarter-century that I wanted to track him down and shoot the breeze. But I never made the effort, and the reason was fear. After a certain number of years had passed since graduation, a worry started snaking its way into my mind every time I thought of him, for he was older than most of the teachers I had at St. Pete High.

Knowing that Father Time is undefeated and offers few bargains, I feared I might see Mr. Foley and find that age had stripped him of his mental faculties. It was a sight I didn't want to see, so I never tried to track him down even though he could have still been sharp as a tack for all I knew.

Because of that fear -- which seems pathetic in hindsight -- I denied myself, and him, the opportunity to have another engaged conversation. It is an inaction I regret.

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Ed Foley's contributions as an educator were immense, but tell just part of his story.

While those of us who are his former students remember him in the wake of his death, we should be cognizant of the fact that he left behind his wife, five children, eight grandchildren, and three siblings. We should keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

And did I mention he was also the school's tennis coach? Because he was.

Mr. Foley, fare thee well behind those pearly gates...

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