by John Darling
We gave him a lot of trouble.
Behind his back, we called him Mister Raisin, Mister Rosenose, or any number of other variations on his real name, Mr. Rosen. He knew this and laughed about it; he knew that we were just a group of excited eighth-graders, attending Kenilworth School in Phoenix, Arizona, who were getting itchy about moving on to high school. We were heading towards a coming-of-age milestone and we were just trying to get a handle on it.
Having been a teacher for more than 30 years, Mr. Rosen had seen and heard it all before. He was prepared for it. He knew of our trepidations and like the great teacher he was, he did his best to help us get over them.
Maybe I was imagining it, but he seemed to take a special interest in me. He had met my mother and knew that I had been fatherless since the age of seven, even though my father was still alive “somewhere.” He knew I had an older brother and sister and that mom was struggling just to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. I know there were a few others like me in his class but for the most part, our class primarily consisted of children from middle-to-high-income families with some of the parents being extremely well-to-do.
I remember the first time I took note of what I perceived as his vested attention in me. It happened when my classmates and I were required to give an oral presentation on a subject of our choice. Fifty-seven years later, I do not remember exactly what I talked about but I do remember that I gave my presentation in a humorous fashion which had Mr. Rosen and the class roaring with laughter. After I finished, he patted me on the back and told the class that I reminded him of “that great comic, Orson Bean.” Most of them had no idea who Mr. Bean was but I knew of him from the classic Twilight Zone episode entitled “Mr. Bevis.” I always loved that one because as a dirt-poor kid growing up in the desert, I regularly wished that someday a guardian angel would visit me, as he did the fictional Mr. Bevis, and grant my every wish. That never happened. Yet, as I grew older, I came to realize that Mr. Rosen may have been the closest I ever came to actually having one.
From that day forward, I used humor to get me by in most situations, like when I made history, of sorts, by being the first kid to perform a stand-up comedy act in Kenilworth’s annual talent show. I came in second to a band called The Sticks who tried to sing “Louie, Louie,” and though I didn’t win, my status soared among my classmates who mostly said they would be too chicken to get up in front of a crowd like I did. Mr. Rosen quietly congratulated me and marveled at the cleverness of the jokes I had written for the show. Since that day, I began taking up the pen in an effort to become a writer.
Later in the school year, we were asked to write a book report on any subject, so I found a book of limericks and told Mr. Rosen that my report would be about them. He gave me a stern look, sat me down, and said that while humor can be useful, most of the time in life you have to be serious about what you think and do. He put his index finger on my forehead, which I had not seen him do to other students, and said, “You have a good mind, Mr. Darling. Use it, let it guide your decisions.” Then he told me to go find another book. When I came back with a copy of Don Quixote, he was thrilled.
For the rest of the school year, Mr. Rosen encouraged me. He said I had the insight I would need to wisely guide me in every situation long after I left his class, but I would have to use it in everything I tried to achieve. This was Mr. Rosen’s way of preparing me for the road ahead.
Thanks to my good grades and a recommendation from Mr. Rosen, I was given a $25.00 grant so I could buy the books I needed for my freshman year of high school. My mother managed to pay for my books my sophomore year, but when she told me she could not afford to buy my books for junior year, I told her not to worry about it and dropped out of school. By that time it was 1967, the hippie counterculture movement was in full-swing, and I was part of it even though I didn’t use mind-altering drugs. Instead, I found a job working in a car wash for $1.00 per hour because my family needed the money. Before my first day at work, I remembered what Mr. Rosen told me about using my intelligence in all my endeavors. I couldn’t imagine how it would help me as I washed and dried cars but, you never know, I thought, feeling his finger on my forehead.
One day I was pressed into writing up customer orders because no one else wanted the job. Using my humor and intelligence, and with Mr. Rosen’s encouragement in mind, I became very good at the job and sold optional fifty-cent spray waxes to nearly every customer. I was so good at the job that I received my first pay raise. To date, the 25% increase I was given, from $1.00 an hour to $1.25 an hour, is the highest percentage raise I have ever received. Until then, I didn’t know you could get raises.
For the next few years, I worked a variety of jobs, including being a sheet metal worker, an assembler at an air conditioning manufacturer, and an extruder operator where I made PVC pipe of all sizes. I was given raises and praises in every job because I did as Mr. Rosen told me to do. I used my head, often figuring out faster and cheaper ways to do things. Still, after six years in the industrial arena, I grew tired of getting my hands dirty, so when I spotted an advertisement for a job as a mental health worker trainee, I applied for it and was hired. The position was at the Arizona State Hospital. On the first day of our preservice training, we were handed a copy of Ken Kesey’s seminal novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, once on the job, I knew why. From that day forward, we were all living the book.
I ended up working in the geriatric ward, which was the last place of residence on earth for the vast majority of patients. One 87-year-old patient had been institutionalized there for nearly eighty years. The “Childhood Certificate of Insanity” in her file, dated sometime in the late 1890s, amazed me since it was signed by a judge and not a medical professional. With a stroke of that judge’s pen, her life was over. I decided then that I wanted to do more than just herd patients from their beds to showers to meals, so when an opportunity arose to train as a psychiatric technician at the hospital’s expense, I applied for and was admitted to the program. After I graduated with high honors and an associate degree in psychology, I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree.
During those school years, I attended classes at a small college during the day, worked a few night shifts during the week, and worked day shifts every weekend. Between my job, attending classes, studying, research, and writing reports, there were many times I felt overwhelmed and wanted to leave it all behind—just walk away from it. I could always go back to making plastic pipe. But I felt by doing that, I’d be betraying the faith Mr. Rosen had in me, so I stayed with it and upon my graduation, I was given my own geriatric ward to supervise (under the guidance of the doctors and nurses, of course).
One day as I was escorting my patients to the cafeteria, I saw a group of patients from a different ward coming from the opposite direction. The psych tech who managed that ward was walking with a patient, apparently doing as much as she could to indoctrinate him to hospital routines. I thought the man she was speaking to looked familiar but when I saw him at the door of the cafeteria, I froze. I couldn’t move my feet. My coworker would later tell me that my mouth was moving but—for once—I was not making a sound.
My reaction was due to the fact that the patient she escorted was Mr. Rosen. After I came to myself, I told the tech I knew Mr. Rosen and that he’d been a teacher of mine in years past. She offered to watch over my patients so I could sit with Mr. Rosen while he ate his lunch.
Though he was in the early stages of dementia, he did remember me after I told him about myself and the things I did in his class. He was genuinely happy to see me despite the circumstances. Later, after my shift ended, I went over to Mr. Rosen’s ward and we talked until it was time for everyone to go to bed. I managed to get him to understand that I was now a college graduate and that I put up with all the long hours and hard work because I remembered what he told me all those years ago. I followed this same routine every day for the next few weeks and one day, one of Mr. Rosen’s doctors pulled me aside and thanked me for my efforts since it seemed to be helping him. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but it did turn out that the Arizona State Hospital would not be Mr. Rosen’s last place of residence on earth.
One morning, I was called by the head nurse of his ward and told I needed to get there. Stat, now, right away. Given the surroundings, I could only think Mr. Rosen was dying and they wanted me to have a chance to say goodbye. Which I ended up doing—but not for the reason I thought it would be as I made my way to his ward.
Instead, I found Mr. Rosen standing next to a nicely-dressed woman who seemed to be about the same age as he was. He was in street clothes and she was crying. When I was introduced, she hugged me with surprising strength and thanked me for being so kind to her husband. She also said she remembered me, which was odd, since I knew I never met her. She noticed my confusion and confirmed that we never met, but explained Mr. Rosen often talked about me at home when I was his student all those years ago.
Then it was my turn to cry.
She went on to say that Mr. Rosen was being transferred to a nursing home in another state she was moving to in order to live with one of their children. She always wanted her husband to go with her, but he had not been to the point where he could safely travel until now. She seemed to think it was my talks with him which made this possible. I told her not to give me all the credit because it was a group effort; all the nurses, doctors, and psych techs worked hard to help patients make this kind of progress. I did not tell her how rarely this happened, but I did tell her that if it were not for Mr. Rosen, I may not have gone to college and consequently been in a position where I could help him in any way. As everyone wished them well and watched them leave, I did not feel a sense of loss. I knew that just like Mr. Bevis’ guardian angel, Mr. Rosen would be with me wherever I went, guiding me in whatever I did for the rest of my days.
Since the 1970s John Darling has written and published numerous short stories, poems, and magazine articles. His first publication was a short story that appeared in the Journal of Mental Health. His lone play, Stage Directions, has been produced in the United States, Canada, and most recently at the Soho Theatre in London, England. You can find out more about him on his author website: https://johndarlingauthor.com/.