I haven’t responded to this title in eight years, since the gorgeous summer day that I walked down an aisle and changed my last name to my husband’s. But, for this person, I happily reply, “Good morning Mr. Mucha.”
You see, Mr. Mucha was my teacher, my husband’s teacher, my parents’ teacher, and basically everyone else under the age of 55 who lives in our little close-knit community. And if Mr. Mucha wants to call me by my maiden name, well then that’s just the way it’s going to be.
I still remember my first day in his class. I was a freshman and feeling a little like the first refrain of Taylor’s Swift song “15.” As roll was called and friends responded with either the obligatory “here” or a smart-aleck response in the hopes of eliciting a chuckle from the peanut gallery, he got to the Ds, and paused. The conversation went something like this:
Mucha: “Another Dodson, huh? Are you related to John Dodson?”
Me: “Yes, he’s my uncle.”
Mucha: “I’ll have to keep my eye on you. He was the only guy I knew that had a back up cheat sheet for his cheat sheet. What’s he doing these days?”
Me: “He’s a lawyer.”
Mucha: “Well, I’ll be damned.”
And from that very moment, I became a fan. I joined the masses in hanging out by his classroom between bells, repeating Mucha-isms, and hoping that he would throw a wisecrack in my direction. Isn’t that funny? We wanted him to make fun of us – because it was always out of love, always in a light-hearted manner, and always hilarious. And, if you were really lucky, he made up a name to call you that would stick with you for the rest of your four years there, if not the rest of your life. Just ask my buddy Jack.
Mucha is old-school; it’s part of his charm. If you were late to class, he wouldn’t assign you a detention or send you to the office or even record it on your attendance record. Instead, he’d make you do pushups. While explaining the morning board work to the rest of the class, he’d throw a little line of encouragement to the tardy student - “I might not be able to make you smarter, but I can make you stronger.”
If you grew up in our small town, chances are that at some point Mr. Mucha was your coach. He’s led every team under the sun – from football to women’s soccer to little league baseball. The only sport he hasn’t coached is lacrosse, and that’s only because we don’t have that here. But I’m sure if you told him that you wanted to start a lacrosse team and that you needed a coach, he would say, “Sure, why not? Now go get those little sticks with the nets on them and I’ll meet you down at the field.” And, if he wasn’t your coach, he was probably calling the strikes behind the plate as an umpire, announcing your name while running the scoreboard, or cheering you on from the stands in his characteristically gruff roar. (Admit it, you just did a Mucha impression in your mind after reading that.)
Every time I get together with old buddies from high school, the talk inevitably turns to tales from our glory days. We talk about that time they cancelled the Homecoming Powder Puff game (the traditional girls vs. girls football game) because of the weather and, instead of going home, we lined the park across the field with our cars, turned the headlights on and played in the rain. Or the time that we had a plan to T.P. our friend’s house and were surprised by an ambush of teenage boys hiding in the trees with Supersoakers. Eventually though, without fail, one of us will start a story with, “Remember that one time in Mucha’s class when….” and the tale that will follow will elicit howls of laughter. That familiar refrain will be followed by another – starting a chain of knee-slapping and tear-generating stories of our time in his class. There is a special place in our hearts for these stories. His classroom was a safe haven during our teenage years, and each memory transports us back to a simpler time. I can almost smell the coffee and chalk dust just thinking about it.
Lest you think that Mucha can only be counted on for an off-color joke or a lesson on swinging the bat, let me share with you his most valuable asset – his heart. When tragedy strikes a small town, the reverberations have a way of impacting everyone. Unfortunately, we’ve endured our fair share of heartbreak and loss as a community in recent years. When such devastation does occur, we turn to a source of comfort, and that source tends to be Mr. Mucha. Three years ago we lost a charismatic and beloved young man in a tragic accident that took him from us way too soon. As the heartbroken community mourned this unthinkable loss, we gathered at the football field to seek solace from each other and provide comfort to his grief-stricken family. And then we sat and listened as Mr. Mucha, microphone in hand, pacing the track, delivered the most beautiful, off-the-cuff, from-the-heart message that I’ve ever heard. In that moment, he was the only one who had the capacity and the gravity to speak in a way that both comforted and lectured a stadium filled with teenagers forced to face the reality of their own mortality. And they listened, we all listened, because he is our coach, he is our mentor, he is our leader, and he is our friend.
And now, as our fearless leader faces his greatest challenge yet in the game of life, I am reminded of all of the lessons that he has taught me since that fall day in 1994 as I sat in his class, gazing out the windows overlooking the football field. He taught me how to do a real pushup, not the girly kind. He taught me how to play Euchre (okay, he didn’t teach me, but he let me play it in his class if I finished all of my homework). In an effort of epic proportions and against all odds, he taught me math. He taught me that if you want students to respect you as a teacher, then you first have to show them that you care about them as a person. He taught me that it’s not always easy to do the right thing, but it’s always worth it. He taught me that if you really want to make an impact in a kid’s life, you have to be a part of their life.
So here is my small attempt to thank him for his impact. For the way that he has guided a community and generations of Bucks. For the way that he let my six year old son join in on the wrestling camp with the big kids, causing him to board the Mucha fanwagon just like the rest of us. For holding my baby when I bring her to school events, even though she pulls at his trademark mustache. For attending the funerals of my grandparents and my husband’s mother and recalling a personal story about each of them. For every small act of kindness - such as opening the windows of my classroom and turning on my fans early in the morning before the students arrive, in an attempt to alleviate the suffocating heat of an early fall day in our non-air-conditioned school. For every grand act of love - such as raising amazing kids of his own who possess his same selflessness and commitment to community.
Thanks Coach Mucha – for making us stronger and smarter. We owe you a mountain of gratitude. There isn’t enough coffee in this world to repay you.