Letter: In memory of Mr. Russell

In Memory Of Mr. Russell

To my great sadness I heard last week that my East Prairie Middle School language arts teacher, Mr. Dan Russell had passed away suddenly. I wasn’t surprised to be sad, but I was not prepared for the depth of the feelings his loss brought. Mr. Russell, who encouraged me to feel free to call him “Dan” after I graduated from high school, will always and forever be Mr. Russell to me. Not because I didn’t consider him a friend over the years but because my respect for him was forged so strongly that there is just simply no undoing it. And why? Why did Mr. Russell make such an impact on me and others?

He was not a flashy teacher nor did he seek to constantly entertain us, although he had a good sense of humor. He had a funny and brief smile, like you were both in on an inside joke. That smile made you feel welcome, like you fit into his world, and he used it generously with all of us. He was a fan of technology in an age when no one had a computer at home. Early generation TRS80 computers sat in the back of his classroom and there were times we were allowed to play a “game” which was mostly dots and lines squiggling across the screen. That was back in the 80’s and today’s kids would be confused, but he knew his students would love it. Even though I had siblings attending the same school system ahead of me and behind me, he never once compared me to them, or any other student. He helped lead the “gifted” program but he didn’t refer to us as gifted, in fact he ran the program as if intelligence meant you needed more responsibility and work—not recognition. He was in the moment with us. If you raised your hand it was common for him to come right over to your desk or table; he was not too busy to focus directly on our questions. More often than not he sent me looking for my own answer in the text. Kindness was apparent every day in his room, but in an understateding way, not just because we needed it but because he liked us. He was interested in his students working to their potential, and he could make a hard-fought “D” feel like an achievement for some and easy “B” feel like a crime for others.

But it wasn’t even all these great things that made him great. It was how he treated us day in and day out. We would turn out to be pretty nice people, but as pre-teen students we were at the dreadful crossroads of outward bravado and inward insecurity. We were silly, brash, immature, and we ran from loud to silent depending on which was the least helpful in the moment. Instead of paying attention, we were focused on what kind of tennis shoes kids were wearing and who was writing notes to whom. We were goofballs, we ran in cliques, we often hurt each other’s feelings. The lunch menu was more interesting than our homework. We were occasionally disrespectful. In short, we were middle-schoolers, living through what we would someday understand to be some of the most challenging years of our lives.

But in Mr. Russell’s room these middle-school labels slid right off. In his room, we weren’t rich or poor, smart or stupid, or even a product of our environment. To Mr. Russell we were people in progress, and he honestly and equally cared about us in his calm and steady way. I did not understand how much he built into his students at the time, I just knew he was patient with us and I liked him. His genius was to treat us like we all mattered, with such authenticity that we never even questioned it. And so we believed we mattered. We knew he quietly wanted us to succeed, every one of us…and no doubt he is part of the reason that many of us did. And that is why he will be celebrated and missed by those who sat under his instruction. Mr. Russell’s passing is such a loss, but such a reminder of how to treat others and the impact one person can have. Thank you, Mr. Russell, thirty years worth of students’ lives are better for having known you. Your work lives on in all of us.

Jennifer (Smith) Richardson
TCHS Class of 1988

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