I’m that Tired Guy, the one drinking water with no lemon. I’m that Tired Guy, collaborating, vacillating, hallucinating, communicating, excavating, fabricating, emulating, reinstating, equivocating, aggravating, liberating, reinstating, deviating, mediating, wri…ting.
[Cue the “Brooks Was Here” track from the excellent film The Shawshank Redemption. I’m in one of THOSE moods tonight.]
On February 10th, 2013 Peter U. DeCenzo passed away peacefully in his Hudson, MA home at the age of 87. Born Pietro Umberto DiCenzo, he was a graduate of Marlborough High School, served in the U.S. Navy and obtained a Bachelors degree in Education from the College of the Holy Cross in 1951. Although a successful salesman of both insurance and real estate, “he eventually pursued his true calling, mathematics, and went on to teach math at Ashland High School until his retirement.” (Source: Worcester Telegram & Gazette from February 10 to February 12, 2013)
Some of you reading tonight’s offering have no idea who this man was, his history, his legacy other than this snippet.
Others might gaze at the above statement, consider it a moment or two and offer a silent prayer to the surviving members of his family. Maybe you’ll nod thoughtfully as images of polygons appear in your minds, the properties of shapes and relative positions of figures running quadrilaterally (which isn’t a word) or fractally (also, not a real word).
Or maybe your eyes narrow at a memory or two and the strong emotions the man’s name engendered, so long lying dusty and dormant.
Or perhaps a slight curve to the lips, a quiet chuckle and a few soft, sing-song, unintelligible words or sounds uttered to no one in particular.
My view of Mr. DeCenzo was three parts Archimedes, five parts Ralph Kramden and a bellyful of Pythagoras. I’m sure some of you reading this have other comparisons, and I gladly welcome your memories – good, bad and congruent.
For now though I thought I’d share one particular memory I have of this man. Oh it’s a fuzzy memory, to be sure. I possess such clarity at times, recalling so many vivid details of places and people long past.
We shall see.
I believe it was the 9th Grade. I humbly apologize if this detail is wrong. It feels right though.
For a young, skinny, pimply-faced, glasses-wearing, gangly, insecure, nobody nerd like myself who was an avid reader, writer, creator and fantasizer of light saber duels, dungeons, dragons and the occasional red-head the prospect of attending Math class was extremely daunting. Add the hyperbolic knot of Geometry and a teacher I had never encountered before, well let’s just say trepidation was just too tame a descriptor for the jarring sense of in-over-my-head-ness I experienced that fateful morning.
The desks were neatly aligned in four columns (or maybe five), at about five (or maybe four) desks deep. Did we sit in alphabetical order by last name, or had we randomly chosen our seats? I honestly don’t remember. However I do recall not sitting in the front, nor in the back, but somewhere in the middle, like some projective geometry.
(Perhaps my friend Wayne – or any mathematical genius for that matter, or someone a helluva lot smarter than me – just read this and will chastise me properly for my foolish attempts at mathematical tomfoolery. Regardless, ever forward, never backward I plod!)
We stared in apprehensive silence across the way at the very large, intimidating, glowering, brooding, purse-lipped, thick-browed, bespectacled man with a shock of whitish hair wearing a faded red cardigan. He perched upon an old swivel chair barely containing his massive girth, the struggling metal struts and plastic pieces nearly crushed and bent yet miraculously refusing to break. Behind him the chalkboard was empty…or maybe it had his name scrawled upon it…or perhaps a shape or three.
But it was the teacher who demanded our complete and utter attention.
When he finally spoke, his baritone was harsh, inflexible, slightly thick and heavy. His eyes raked the seated students sending a clear message: this was MY classroom, and for the next sum of minutes our lives, our attention, our minds, EVERYTHING, belonged to him.
You’re damn right I was scared. I had endured plenty of yelling, intimidation, negativity and thoughtless stupidity in my own home on a daily basis. My step father was quite adept at dishing out all of those things and more. I didn’t need it at school, and especially not from a teacher.
Math was my nemesis. I was already behind the proverbial eight-ball. So sitting in this classroom nearly shitting my pants because this behemoth wanted to take a piss on all of us was precisely what I didn’t need.
But then something interesting happened.
Mr. DeCenzo asked us all a singular question, one I still remember to this day (although the specific question may have faded with age), something I’ve chewed on for a long, long while.
“What is your most valuable possession?” he asked cryptically, surely antagonistically, and quite certainly pointedly.
Mr. DeCenzo posed that question to each one of us, and demanded an answer. Up and down the rows the students responded, the answers typical to young teenagers – our families, loved ones, dogs, cats, comic book collections, health, education, money, Carl Yastrzemski rookie cards.
And to each response Mr. DeCenzo would grunt or sneer, daring the next student to come up with something more profound or equally inane.
Hell we were in ninth grade so would you expect anything less from us?
Which was precisely his game.
Once the round of answers ended, Mr. DeCenzo leaned forward, his chair creaking and groaning in abject protest. Eyes glistening brightly a slow smile crawled across his ruddy face.
“You’re all wrong,” he gloated, knowing we would all fail. He paused, studying all of us with a deep, penetrating stare.
And then he said gruffly, “Your most valuable possession is your time.”
He let that sink home.
“It’s mine too. So don’t waste any of it.”
And then class began in earnest.
Love him or hate him, Mr. DeCenzo was a great teacher. I ended up with a C in Geometry, and I wore it like a Pyrrhic badge. As for the man himself, he mellowed out as time wore on (isn’t it ironic Alannis?), or perhaps the intimidation was merely a tactic to get us to buy into his philosophy. He eventually became “Mr. D.” to me (and most others), and I remembered him fondly thereafter as the man who hummed and dithered rather than the mathematical tyrant I dreaded to see each morning.
Had it occurred to me how important his question was perhaps I would have pressed him for his take on the answer. Then again, I was a teenager with a fledgling sense of self-awareness focused upon Atari, the latest Spider-Man comic, why no girls liked me beyond the “friend zone” and the now, and had little time (another irony?) for Jack Handy’s thoughts.
As of today I’m 42 years old, married, laden with crazy children and still pondering the answer to that question, as well as why girls (sorry, women) don’t like me (except my dogs). Ok I kid about that…Mrs. Tired Guy does like me…some times more than others…
I’ve blogged in this space about time travel, cherishing the now, understanding who you are and why you are and what you are and how you are and because this is this and that is that, and tossing out a nugget of nonsense shrink-wrapped in a song lyric and maybe a funny quip about a movie or three.
Perhaps I’ve explored that question too much, or maybe I need to keep at it, worrying at Occam’s Razor because the explanation with the fewest assumptions isn’t exactly the right recipe for disaster.
Do I truly possess time, or does time possess me? Churchill was right, of course. It’s Russia all over again…complete with the gift-wrapped riddle full of gooey chocolate conundrums.
Maybe I’ll chew on that sandwich some more another day.
But for now I wish to extend my deepest condolences (albeit belated since I’m only typing this nearly three weeks after his passing) to the DeCenzo Family. I am certain he will be missed.
And with that I thank you Mr. D., truly thank you, for helping an insecure, nice, shy, friendly and quirky Jewish kid from Ashland, Massachusetts acquire the radius of wisdom, the circumference of understanding, and an area of knowing I continually ponder to this very day.
After all, the universe IS curved.