Teachers are a precious, if often overlooked, resource in any society. But even more precious are those rare few who, in addition to offering knowledge and nurturing, keep the flame of culture alive. Bob Mitchell was such a teacher. He was, ostensibly, a high school Latin teacher; but he was, in fact, much more than that.
You’d have to know this guy to fully appreciate him. Picture long blond hair, glasses, a handlebar mustache and a barrel chest, always moving like a runaway train– in heavy clogs, so you could hear him coming a mile away (he was a devoted runner and participated in the Boston Marathon many times). He was the smartest person I’ve ever met face to face. He spoke more than twenty languages and could flip between them like another man would flip between TV channels. He read at least one book a day and retained everything. He had traveled all over the world and retained all of that, too. He didn’t just teach a dead language– he breathed life into an ancient world, he took the words and made you see beyond their definitions to what they meant to the people that had actually spoken them, the colors and shades and nuances of idioms and turns of phrase and slang and how it related to their culture and their daily lives.
I’d sit in his class and be in awe of him. He was never still, always moving at a hundred miles an hour; but that was only a fraction of the speed of his mind. Watching him teach was like watching a brilliant performance– or, rather, a performance of brilliance, a stand-up act of the mind, a Vaudeville of the intellect. Stories, puns, wordplay, endless digressions into the minutiae of the ancient world; a single word could conjure up an entire aspect of a lost civilization and he would paint a picture of it as if he had been there. Seeing him in action was inspirational; it was like watching the pure essence of Humanity at work. Or, rather, at play. Mister Mitchell never worked. He just lived and breathed his passions and let them overflow into whoever was lucky enough to be near him.
He was an inspiration just by existing, but he also was generous with his individual attention. No student ever lacked for his undivided focus, no question ever went unanswered, no quirk or eccentricity ever went unappreciated. For me, he always encouraged my writing, and was never less than brutally honest in his assessments. After graduation, he actually took me out to dinner at the No Name Restaurant to talk about writing and give me encouragement. He was, in short, the coolest teacher a student could hope to have.
The following anecdote, related by his student Esther Mobley, will give you a bare hint of what he was like:
"Once a student casually asked him if there was a translation of the Gettysburg Address in Latin. There was not, and so Mr. Mitchell came into school at six o'clock the next morning and translated it himself, from memory, unaided by any dictionary, within a matter of hours. He filled Room 318's two wall-length chalkboards in his narrow, near-unintelligible calligraphy."
How can you not love a guy like that?
At the youthful age of 60, Bob Mitchell succumbed to melanoma. He is no longer with us, but he has left behind a legacy of cultural and intellectual devotion, passed on like an Olympic torch to not one, but thousands of kindred spirits over decades of teaching. We gained from him not just a wealth of knowledge, but the example of a life well lived: To embrace your passions and to never pretend to be less than you are.
Below is a video tribute to the late, great Bob Mitchell.
Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com. He’s no Mister Mitchell, though.