Today I went to school to go to the dedication of a bench in memory of my friend and colleague Steve Dafilou who died today, last year. I spoke some impromptu remarks which I've tried to remember and improve on below.
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Steve and I had a lot in common. We shared a birthday. We both went to Big 10 schools. We both married women named Lori. We both were probably louder than we needed be. There were other ways in which we were not alike. I teach History. Steve taught Math. I am a very abstract person. I really do think theoretically first most of the time and then try to use the theory to solve my problem. Steve was imminently practical. When my daughter was born, she was a real pain. She couldn't breast feed and she took forever to fall asleep. Our nights were hellish adventures of futilely trying to get a latch and failing, then heating up and feeding the stored breast milk while pumping the next batch, then cleaning the equipment and trying to get Lenny to fall back asleep and then doing it all again two hours later. I was a zombie and Lori wasn't much better. One day she brought Lenny up to school and left her there, I'm not sure why. Maybe she needed to take a nap. Lenny was fussing and Steve took her out of my arms and plopped her on his belly and within seconds she was asleep. I was floored. In the best of times, I can barely keep my life
together. As a sleep deprived new father in my second year on the job, I
was a mess. By this point, I knew Steve had two daughters (I would eventually teach them both) and had seen them around school. I knew he was a great parent.
"Steve," I asked, "what's the secret? How am I going to do this? I've read 75 parenting books and they all say something different!"
And Steve looked down at my sleeping daughter, and he looked up at me and said, "the creamy white stuff is better than clear, greasy stuff."
He was talking, of course, about butt cream, what you put on the kid to keep her from getting diaper rash. And this was absolutely, typical Steve. He saw a struggling new parent and tossed him a practical lifeline. He gave me a concrete lifeline, one thing I could do that day that would make my daughter's life and mine, a little bit better. I watched Steve do this with scores of Math students and advisees over the years. There would be kids, scores of kids, kids struggling not just with one concept or a particular problem, but with whole sections of Math, and School, and Life. And Steve would toss them a lifeline of one specific thing they could do right then to make things a little better. And the next day another one. And another one. Until soon they weren't struggling anymore.
As long as there teachers in our buildings who will do that, Steve will be here. I think he will be here for a long, long time.
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So that's what I said. Or something like that it. But I wanted to add two things.
First, my friend Charlie spoke beautifully about how Steve's whole life was the school and that was true. And Steve's brother spoke beautifully about how Steve's whole life was his family and that was true, too. And those of that knew Steve knew also that his whole life was tied to his synagogue, that is when he wasn't busy having his whole life be the Philadelphia Folk Festival. That's four lives that he crammed into forty-something years. I think I probably have more room in my life for another life or two.
Second, Steve had a sign on his door, and on the sign was a
phrase, and it's on the bench, too. It says "Help is here." Next year,
I'm going to hang a sign on my door. It's going to say "Help is
here." Not everybody has a door, or a classroom, or an office. But I
think everybody has a place where they can hang a sign, even if it's
just in their minds or on their hearts. Do me a favor, dear reader,
and hang a sign that says "help is here" in memory and appreciation of
my friend Steve Dafilou.