I squeezed in through the "stage door," as directed, just to the left of the double gym doors in the main corridor. The last of our three children had attended Beeman School more than 27 years ago, so I'd forgotten my way around.
Making my way up the several steps to the stage, I shed my heavy coat, tossing it atop an unassuming pile of equipment which seemed not to be in immediate use, and entered the bustling little elevated area where spectators ranging in age from two-months to late thirties (and of course my husband and I, often the eldest members of any given crowd these days) had gathered to view, and cheer one or the other of the two floor hockey games taking place at Beeman last week.
We had come for the second game, the Courageous Cookie Monsters versus the Winter Wolves, but I was early enough to catch the last 15 minutes of the first one, which gave me an idea of what to expect, my own sports skills and the understanding of anyone else's being seriously impaired.
Since many of the more agile fan base crowded cozily together on the stage floor of the gym amidst winter coats and boots, backpacks, and extra hockey shoulder pads and sticks, I pushed one of the several unoccupied little red metal folding chairs to front stage, affording myself a bird's eye view. When my husband arrived, he leaned against a wall behind me.
The atmosphere was charged with enthusiasm from both the players themselves and the spectators, who were comprised of parents, younger siblings, fellow-students, and this pair of grandparents. The coach, known to me as "Mr. C," attended patiently to all the questions and demands of his players, directing them with hand signals as the amplified voice of the student with a microphone cut through the air announcing goals and the names of the players and teams who made or checked them.
As the first game ended and the second commenced with our grandson Jacob as captain, I became more settled into the scene, taking time to observe my surroundings. I noticed that the teams were mixed gender, girls and boys equally engaged, and Jacob told me later that a girl was one of the best players on his team. The teams were differentiated by the color of their stick blades, red or blue. A jovial but intense spirit of cooperation and good sportsmanship pervaded in all regards. When the goalie needed to get his leg pads on, he simply lay on the floor on his belly, and two other players dashed out to "Velcro" the straps in place on the backs of his splayed legs.
I glanced around at the posters decorating the walls. In one, a boy did a one-armed handstand, the caption reading, "Fuel up! Do amazing things!" Another showed a group of students with big smiles standing on their school steps, holding flutes and clarinets, inviting kids to "Join the band!"
Then, off to my left, I was distracted by a plaque too far away to read, with a photograph of some handsome young man in summer whites perched on a wall, looking confidently into the camera. Momentarily, I lost my connection to the floor hockey game as I squinted, thinking I knew that face in the picture. When I got up to look closer, I recognized him as Francis "Chuck" Mitchell, and I remembered him as indeed the brass plaque read, "A gifted, creative, energetic teacher who dedicated himself to the children of Gloucester at Beeman School from 1975-1996."
What a long time ago it had been since had he been second-grade teacher to both of our sons, and how quickly memories of him flooded back to me, for he was an unusual, wonderful teacher, and his students loved him. When I later spoke to one of my sons, I asked him if he remembered Mr. Mitchell.
"Absolutely," he said. "I thought he was the most amazing person I'd ever seen. He drove a sports car and wore aviator sunglasses and long silk scarves, and when he returned from a trip to Egypt, he showed us a slide show of the pyramids and brought back a coin for every kid in the class. And he meant what he said. I was one of only two kids who did not get to make a paper bat to hang from the ceiling because I didn't take seriously the 'multiplication challenge of the 9s table.'"
Sometimes, he played opera in his classroom. On a field trip for which I was a chaperone, I remembered hearing a little boy ask, "Mr. Mitchell, are you a snob?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I am. And I hope that one day you will be one, too, if it means that you're not afraid to learn new things, no matter what other people think."
Chuck Mitchell died too young, but not without leaving his mark on many children.
Someone had tacked a card above that plaque in the Beeman School gym. It read, "Teachers put memories in our hearts that we carry for a lifetime."
Blessings on all teachers and coaches who rise to that standard.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.