Mr. Campbell

Mr. Campbell made me laugh. I laughed despite my best intentions, biting my tongue, resentful, sitting in the back row with my arms crossed. He began class with a Bible verse. It was a Catholic school, and that’s how all classes started. 

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

His voice was deep, imbuing the familiar rhythm with sonority, resonance. He paused.

“Wouldn’t that be great if it were true?”

Sacrilege was still a novel concept to us sophomores, and some combination of the unexpectedness of the comment and the contrast between it and the psalm sent us into fits of uncontrollable laughter. I giggled before I could stop myself. I didn’t want to like Mr. Campbell.

Mr. Campbell was everyone’s favorite teacher—brilliant, funny, and with a sort of detached, ironic attitude towards the whole concept of school. He was tall and very overweight, a silver beard covering his chin. Blue eyes. A Winnie-the-Pooh tie. A giant Oxford shirt littered with coffee stains. I thought he was overrated.

Mr. Campbell spent an entire class showing us his favorite concerto, an entire class having us listen to a meditation tape. He rewound a scene of Pride and Prejudice because he liked the cinematography. He told us that life was short and we should appreciate beauty wherever we could find it.

It wasn’t all sentiment, however. He’d end class with the words “Have fun; make money.” What he was doing teaching high school English with this mindset eluded me. But his favorite piece of advice was what his father told him before dropping him off at Harvard, a working-class Irish kid who had traversed the distance between Boston and Cambridge by showing his interviewer the stacks of books he had read: Vanity Fair, War and Peace, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“Don’t take shit from nobody,” his father told him.

Over time I warmed to Mr. Campbell. He would go out of his way to make me, specifically, laugh. I don’t know why. But it made me feel special.

Later, after I’d graduated, he was still making jokes, still yelling at his students.

“Take out the trash, I have cancer!” he would say. At least that’s what I heard.

His son was selling his album online as a way to raise money for the costs of parking near Mass General. They didn’t need it for medical expenses because insurance already covered that. When you went to buy the album, there was a little blank space where you chose how much money you wanted to give, and a longer blank space where you could write a message. $50, I typed. That was it.

I went to the funeral wearing a black dress I had borrowed from a friend. Mrs. Collins, my second-favorite English teacher, read the psalms.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

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