Ralph Bradshaw died Wednesday night. He was just a teacher.
I had him for junior English at Coronado High School, where he pushed a young man with miniskirted coeds on his mind to read serious novels. I told him they were boring and reading them was hard. He made no attempt to make them relevant to me or dumb them down. Instead, he told me that I must read them because they were hard and if I was willing to find the tunnel into them they would be anything but boring. He was right, of course, and years later I realized he was teaching from "the great books," the canon. In his early thirties at the time, Mister Bradshaw sported fashionably longish hair and a moustache, looking almost a hippie compared with some of his older peers. But beneath this was an incisive mind, a setter of high standards, passionate supporter of quality and something of a square (in a good way). A sponsor of many extracurricular activities and sometime director in the theater, he was also great fun. He was just a teacher.
He contacted me when I returned to Phoenix in 2000 as a columnist for the Arizona Republic with a first novel coming out. By then retired, he had lost none of his intellect, dry wit and interest in his students. I have some mixed feelings about that decision to come back home. At the time, I was riding higher in my newspaper career than I ever would again and had offers and feelers from around the country, including one that might have resulted in attaining my lifelong dream of going to New York City. And things didn't exactly turn out well after speaking truth to power. But if I hadn't returned, I never would have gotten to know Mister Bradshaw with the gift of years to illuminate all that I owed him.
He was the antithesis of stuffy, insisted that I call him "Ralph." This was never easy. Even though I was in my forties by then, he was still Mister Bradshaw or Mr. B. I was no more comfortable calling Mr. Hughes, the chairman of Coronado's fine English department, "Dick," my theater arts teacher Mr. Newcomer, "Jim" or my Arizona history teacher Mr. Trimble "Marsh" — much less use the first name for (Mrs.) Salle Sherrod, who in sophomore year became the woman who taught me to love Shakespeare. In an age where people are tattooed like sailors out of Melville, have pierced faces like tackleboxes and call each other "motherfucker" on the street, there's something to be said for a sense of what is appropriate and gestures of earned respect.
Once back in Phoenix, I learned that my teachers were proud of me. This astounded me, for I had been an indifferent student much of the time. My senior advanced composition teacher, Mrs. Autenrieth, in a fit of frustration at my laziness, told me I would never make it as a writer. It was, in retrospect, an astute observation but I'm too old to stop now. (She passed away earlier this year). I carry all my failures, but I am so honored (astounded, really) that these men and women were proud of me.
Mister Bradshaw and I often had coffee at the Park Central Starbucks, talked about days old and new. He retained a keen interest in the world, although he was appalled at the changes in Arizona. We both mourned the decline of Coronado from its glory years. Heroic teachers still work at CHS. But the decline of support for public education pained him, as did the loud and influential political hostility toward "government schools" He was just a teacher. A public school teacher.
He was just a teacher. He didn't teach to the test nor did he need national standards. He didn't become a hedge-fund manager or an investment banker. He never made billions sending jobs offshore or making plays in derivatives while evading the taxes that support the commons. No lucrative revolving door between D.C. and Wall Street cushioned his retirement. Instead he held faith in the power of great literature, in the hands of a great teacher, to change young lives for the better. I know he and the other fine teachers at Coronado saved my life. They set me out on a series of adventures, an appreciation of the world and a willingness to fight worthy battles thanks to the treasures they gave me, even though I didn't realize I was carrying them when I graduated.
They were teachers, when the position still commanded honor, before America so unraveled. Before the media focused its energies on public employee pensions instead of the depredations of bankers, real-estate hustlers and the charter school racket. And yes, Coronado was an unusually good high school at a unique moment in America, but that Scottsdale was middle class, not north Scottsdale. I encountered similar teachers at Kenilworth just north of downtown Phoenix. I've heard Alfredo Gutierrez, growing up poor and Hispanic in Miami, Ariz., talk about his gratitude for his public school teachers.
I didn't get to catch up with Mister Bradshaw during my most recent visit; he was too ill. I sent a copy of my new novel, inscribed to him, but it arrived too late. When a teacher like this dies, an entire library burns down. Yet Mr. B's wealth and legacy are measured in the thousands of young lives he inspired. He was so loved. The outpouring on the CHS alumni page on Facebook was but a fraction. "The best of teachers," wrote one former student. "A great man," said another. One comment seemed especially apt: "Our small community at that time was like catching lightning in a bottle..."
Yes, but for that second it flashed brighter than anything.