What is there to say? I'm not very interesting. I'm not a good writer. I don't even dress well. If you insist on knowing something about me just wander through the archives. It's all there.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

On a gifted teacher

Everyone has someone who made a lasting impression on him or her during his or her teenage years. Sometimes it is a high school teacher. Sometimes it is a close friend. During my academic life, I have probably interacted with hundreds of teachers. I have had many good and valued friends. However, if I had to think back to the one person who left the most indelible mark on me, it would not be a teacher or a peer. It would be a Polish tailor.

During my last year of high school, I got a part-time job working in Mr. L’s shop. It was a great job for a high school kid. Mr. L’s pay scale was quite generous for the time. The store was a comfortable and impressive multi-story complex. I helped out with fittings, restocked the inventory, did pressing, and general clean up work. Mrs. L even let me help out in the photography studio sometimes. It was, actually, a really great job for a high school kid who was trying to save up money for college.

However, many of the high school and college kids who worked there didn’t last very long. Some only made it to their first explosion. The source of these explosions was Mr. L. When Mr. L encountered something that displeased him, he was instantly vocal in expressing his displeasure. The front windows would rattle with his expressions of displeasure. The asphalt would crack in the street out front. Mr. L could vaporize metal with his colorful expressions of displeasure. I have seen customers literally run for the front door when they inadvertently triggered one of Mr. L moments of flaming glory. He was not a big man, but he could be quite a formidable force when he got on a roll.

Except for his sons, none of us would even consider going toe to toe with Mr. L. I think it really pleased him that his sons would verbally duke it out with him. I can recall him slyly winking at me after being bested by his oldest son in a shouting match. Mrs. L., of course, didn’t put up with it and could quiet him with a look. She was a mother to all of us who worked there regardless of our last name. But each of us who stuck around developed his or her own strategy for surviving the nuclear blast furnace that Mr. L’s wrath could unleash.

Mr. L always wanted you to keep busy. If there were no fittings, then there must be shoes to stock, pants to press, or racks of hangers to sort out. If you were smart, you learned to always find something that needed to be done. Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough to fend off a verbal scorching. I learned very quickly my “secret” way to calm Mr. L down when he got riled at me. Mr. L loved to teach. I like to learn.

At first, I took advantage of this. If Mr. L got mad about something that I had messed up on the steam press, I would innocently ask, “well, how should I have done it.” Mr. L would instantly calm down and patiently explain and demonstrate the process to me. He would insist that I demonstrate that I could do it myself. This usually got us well past his initial displeasure and all was forgotten and forgiven.

In a short time, I found that I really enjoyed Mr. L’s impromptu lessons. He was a true master of his craft. If I asked Mr. L how to operate a particular sewing machine, he would set everything else aside and first, name all the working parts of that particular sewing machine. He would show me how to take it apart, adjust it properly, and clean it. He had interesting and often, very funny stories about how he had learned to use it and where it had come from originally. I think he knew the history of every machine that was ever used in the art of tailoring. He would show me how to sew a straight seam or long smooth curves on that particular sewing machine. Then he would have me do it while he watched over my shoulder and corrected any mistakes. Mr. L could be unbelievably generous with his time and talents, but he fully expected that sewing machine to be mastered when he was done with the lesson.

I learned an incredible amount in the relatively short time I spent working at the store. Even after going off to college, I would return during Summer or Spring Breaks to help out or just to visit with Mr. and Mrs. L. I did not go into the clothing business, but many of the things that Mr. and Mrs. Ls’ store taught me have served me well over the years.

I do have my own sewing machine. I can, not only use it well, but I can take it apart, adjust it, and clean it. I can still draft patterns. I knew the proper way to measure my sons for their first suits. It still bothers me when the hangers in my closet don’t all face the same way. I notice it when a shirt cuff extends too far below the end of a tuxedo jacket sleeve at a wedding. I know how to correctly adjust suspenders and do a blind hem on pant legs. I don’t like it when the creases on my dress pants’ legs break in an awkward place. I carefully inspect the lining and stitching of any suit that I am considering buying. I know the correct sequence for quick pressing a sport coat with a steam iron to get the best results. I know how to hand sew a button on so that only an act of Congress can remove it. In every job I have ever held, I remember that there is always something that “still needs to be done”. I learned each and every one of these things from a Polish tailor.

To this day, I cannot try on a suit or tuxedo without actually hearing Mr. L’s voice. It was a loud voice sometimes, but it was the voice of the most naturally gifted teacher I have ever known.


Blogger Adinah said...

what a wonderful post....

8/7/05 12:18 AM  

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