We did it.
Close to 40 years after I watched him perform as Captain Hook and decided I wanted him as my teacher, more than a quarter century after I first worked in his classroom and nearly two decades after he learned that he had a degenerative neuromuscular condition, Paul Tamburello and I called together our communities to the school where we met and developed a lifelong friendship to celebrate the completion of our project, On My Teacher’s Shoulders.
The book and website tell the story of my learning from Paul at three different stages in my life: as a fourth grade student; as an apprentice teacher, and as a young man seeking to emulate his example of resilience and service in the face of physical adversity.
During this time my relationship with him changed from student to apprentice to friend to fellow traveler on the road of life.
The names I have called him reflect that evolution.
With some difficulty, I learned to make the transition from “Mr. Tamburello” to “Paul,” and, later, from “Paul” to “PT.”
But one thing that our hundreds of conversations had taught us was that Paul not only was changed by receiving from me one of the largest possible pieces of evidence of teacherly impact, but that he faced substantial questions at each of the junctures where he taught me.
Several years before he had me as a student in his classroom, he had been a first-year teacher struggling with the same insecurities he would guide me through close to 20 years later.
When I asked if I could teach in his classroom, he hesitated before agreeing. He was unsure whether my perception of him and the quality of his work would continue in the face of an extensive apprenticeship.
And when he was told that he did not have ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he wrestled with how to manage an unknown encroaching physical limitation before resolving that the answer lay in helping to raise money and awareness about the disease he could have contracted.
Paul’s reflections on each of these stages appear on the website.
Last night, in the auditorium where I went and performed as a student and worked as an adult, he read them.
The crowd was a gorgeous tapestry comprised of people from many different points in our lives. Time’s passage and life’s strains and stresses and habits of diet and sleep had etched their marks on us all.
But we were there, gathering and hugging and nearly levitating the cafeteria before filing in and sitting on the lacquer-covered bleachers I had once sat on as a student and apprentice.
A tall, large screen stood in the middle of the room with a wooden podium with a microphone and silver metal plaque with the school’s name.
Brandishing a silver tinfoil hook on the end of his left arm with gusto, Paul recreated the role of Captain Hook with gusto after I read the chapter’s opening paragraphs.
We flowed back and forth as we took the audience through the journey.
Paul shared his hesitancy about my returning to his classroom before I read about parent-teacher conferences we conducted. After he detailed his response to learning he had Spinal Muscular Atrophy, I showed a local television clip from April 1999 about my running the Boston Marathon in Paul’s honor.
I read from the book’s final chapter before we turned to the audience:
After the ceremony was over, we all stood around, soaking in the evening’s warmth. It was one of those moments where wine and food and company and good cheer and humor and history produced an enchanted air that descended from the ceiling and draped over all of us.
I didn’t want it to end, but eventually people started checking their watches and the round of goodbye hugs and promises to get together began.
Paul and I walked out together with Dunreith and Nona and Jon. The air was warm, the sky was clear and the stars glittered and shimmered above us.
We hugged each other one more time.
It was a hug that encapsulated fourth grade and the return visits and Mom and Dad’s accident and working in his classroom and 10 Positive Spins and two Marathons.
It was a hug that covered the 30 years since I had first seen him as Captain Hook to his rendition not an hour earlier.
It was a hug that covered the time from him being Mr. Tamburello to Paul to PT, from teacher to mentor to friend to fellow traveler on the road of life.
I looked at my wife and brother and gazed at the starry night and saw farther and wider than I ever had before.
We ended the presentation and reveled in the feeling of love that enveloped the room.
For me, the evening was the culmination of a project that I first began more than a dozen years ago to honor Paul Tamburello, a man who has been a vital force in my personal and professional growth and development.
It also was the realization of a vision of integrating a community and set of life experiences during the 47 years I have been privileged to live on this planet.
And, on the profoundest level, it was an affirmation of the possibility that there can be congruence between our deepest dream and values, our actions, the projects we undertake and complete, and our circle of loved ones.
We did it.