The world is a little less today: Zorn has passed on from it.
To the uninitiated, Zorn might seem like a sound effect from an old Batman fight scene, but it is a man’s name. Why should you know that name? Because Dan Zorn was the best teacher ever. No, he was never honored on national television. He never met Oprah. He never even won any local teaching awards that I’m aware of. Yet to me he will always be the greatest teacher ever.
Mr. Zorn was a survivor of the Vietnam War. He came back with a few grisly stories about botched inoculations and a whole load of cynicism about life, the universe, and everything. I never asked him why he picked teaching as a profession, but I can guarantee that his story would have been as uninspirational and pessimistic as possible.
Mr. Zorn didn’t play by the rules. When we were acting up, he did not politely ask us to stop. He barked, “Stop jacking around!” or “Stop playin’ grab ass over there!” (Sorry. I can’t censor Zorn.) He was also one of “the teachers that smoked,” and all the students knew it. He made no bones of hiding it. In fact, he would smoke right in front of us during the school day if he happened to be transporting us from Point A to Point B in his old Toyota truck. We took plenty of probably-unauthorized off-campus trips to pick up materials for whatever project we were working on. I had my suspicions that his eagerness to take us was actually fueled more by nicotine than education.
Mr. Zorn played by the rules. There was no question of whether we would work in Zorn’s class or not. There were no “free days.” If we came up with any kind of excuse to miss class, he would snark, “Sounds like a scam!” “Get to work, you weasels!” was his way of motivating us. It didn’t matter how many minutes there were until the end of class because his clock was a blank, black circle. There was an hour hand and a minute hand, but the rest was just guesswork. Hanging nearby was a sign that read, “Beware of Zorn.” Our class had given it to him as a Christmas present. When we gave it to him, he reared back his head and belted, “Ha!” His laugh was like that—a cross between a blast and a cackle.
Mr. Zorn had a thin moustache, wore large-lensed glasses, behind which big, bug eyes rolled around in their sockets like machine gun turrets. Even if the classroom thermostat was set at 68 degrees (and it always was), he would still be sweating up a storm. His arms were riddled with arthritic nodules, and his hands were bent by the arthritis as well, but I never once heard him complain. Once when one of his nodules was removed, Zorn kept it in a jar, which he proudly displayed in his classroom and named “Mr. Lumpy.”
Zorn was only certified in math and gifted education but proficient at teaching everything. “I could teach math to a brick,” he once boasted—to a classroom full of bricks. To watch him teach was like a comedy routine. He had the timing of a professional. While preparing an equation, he took the time to quip, “I’m just a Y’s guy,” scribble the pun on the board, belt out a cackle, and continue with the lesson. We read literature, listened to classical music, suffered through logic problems, and attempted computer programming with Logo Writer. He even taught us some carpentry. He was a renaissance man of the highest caliber. There was no “subject” with Mr. Zorn’s class: It was everything all at once. In his class we learned and learned—and had so much fun we never realized we were doing it.
One year when Christmas rolled around, my classmates and I decided we would go carol to Mr. Zorn. We surprised him by singing, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Zorn,”—a little bit of copyright infringement on our part. He loved it—throwing back his head, cackling, and beating those nearly obsolete hands on the table. We understood the irony, too. Mr. Zorn wasn’t a grinch. Underneath a crusty, cynical exterior, he had a heart of gold. He cared for all of us more than he would ever care to admit—and that was the beauty of it. He didn’t have to say he cared because we knew. When I started applying for college and asked Mr. Zorn for a letter of recommendation, he wrote a heartfelt letter with the best things anyone had ever said about me. He saw the good in me even when I couldn’t.
College rolled around, and then two years of it passed; I knew I had to pick a career. I didn’t have many ideas, but I knew I did not want to be a teacher. My family has produced a lot of teachers, and I was going to do something different. My dad tried in vain to convince me to go into education. Nothing else uses a person’s creativity like teaching, he said. It’s a great way to impact lives. Yet I kept thinking, “I couldn’t be a teacher!” As the struggle continued, I began to ask myself, “Could I be a teacher?” I finally decided I couldn’t be a teacher, but I could be a Zorn. That would be okay.
So sarcastic and cynical Mr. Zorn was my reason for getting into education. After the decision was made, I was hesitant to tell him. My classmates and I had continued to get together with Zorn each Christmas Break after graduation: After all, he was our favorite teacher. On one of these occasions I reluctantly told him my career choice. He gave the response I expected: “Oh, geez.”
That same year one of my college professors required that we write a letter to the teacher who influenced us most in high school. Whom else could I write to? It had to be Zorn. But I was mortified to speak such sentimental words to him. Sappy stuff was not Zorn. So I wrote my letter, knowing full well that I would not send it. Yet without my knowledge, the professor mailed it. I never mentioned sending it, and he never mentioned getting it. Years later, when I had matured a bit and realized that I should be thanking Zorn, I sent him another letter—a better one—and thanked him for everything.
When I got married, I had to invite Zorn. He could not attend, but he sent me a letter of congratulations. I am sorry that I missed the wedding and perturbed that I was not invited to the honeymoon. –Zorn-
When I published my first book of teaching materials, I knew whom it had to be dedicated to. Since it was a book of mythology stories (and to soften the sentiment), I inscribed it: To Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Zorn. I sent him a copy of the book with a note of thanks. He replied with some of the best lines ever: “In your book I saw a list of three heavyweights and one lightweight. I have had a great career, but this is the cherry on the top.”
Now Mr. Zorn has passed on, and the world is a little less. I am thankful that I had him in my life. I am thankful I took the time to say, “Thanks.” It makes his passing a little easier.
Why do I tell you all this? To encourage you. Don’t just be a teacher. Be a Zorn.