By Matt Gordon
I really don’t know a whole lot about Dan Stover, and I think that is how it should be. Myths need only hazy backstories, if backstories at all. Were we to know he had a normal upbringing or a conventional education, it may have sullied the lore behind a man who showed up to school on horseback. Literally, he did. I don’t recall what the horse did all day—it is beyond the grazing field of my mind. But on the first and last day of school, a ruddy, goateed man, donning a white cowboy hat and sat high upon brown steed, cantered up to the west wing of the brick school building. And that was my sixth grade teacher.
It was a miracle really. Not just having Mr. Stover as a teacher, but actually getting Mr. Stover as a teacher. Word had it that requests for Mr. Stover had been filed at the Superintendent’s Office from zealous parents on behalf of unborn children. When we got our classroom assignments in the mail the summer preceding sixth grade, I opened the envelope with a tremble. It wasn’t that Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones were bad teachers, nor were any of the rest of them; they were all fine. Good, even. It had nothing to do with them, if one is completely honest. It was all much more supernatural than that. Like a family that barely survives on rocky, useless land, only to find an ocean of oil beneath them. Or lottery winners. Or a piano prodigy, who, at thirty, touches the ivory for the first time and never looks back. Every so often a human being cosmically adapts to earth precisely as he is intended. It is Jordan fading away; Churchill urging the Brits that they “shall go on to the end”; it is Galileo staring up into the night sky. Every now and again a person’s life work aligns with cosmic calling. It wasn’t that Mr. Stover was a better teacher than his peers. It is that he stood alone, above and beyond a mere profession. He was a man, called.
There was an aura about his classroom. First, there were no rules. Reputation trumped the need for them. One doesn’t dally about testing the gods—he humbles himself before them. With Mr. Stover we didn’t really need boundaries, for we were at all times engaged. Whether it was sneaking as a class together to go learn zone defense in the gym or doing an impromptu classroom performance based on Julius Caesar—everyone was involved. In a way, our teacher’s calling brought us all up to a similar state as pupils, for no great teacher ever existed without pupils.
And boy did we learn. About NASA’s Challenger disaster and King Tut and how to groom a horse and run a farm. I remember in a bygone age, he packed all of us boys up one Friday after school and marched us off to his land for a camping trip. I don’t even think there was a permission slip—our parents knew not to question greatness in its purest form. He taught us how to set up tents, how to fish in the creek, and how to start a fire. The one shred of disobedience occurring after he went to sleep in his own tent, as us boys gathered around the fire and peed on it. Mr. Stover’s first words as he woke up to make us a country breakfast? “Who peed on the fire?” But certainly he already knew.
We felt his omniscience and grinned widely at his omnipresence, when, on Friday night home football games, we’d hear his galloping cadence come over the loudspeaker, “That’s another Jackson Indian first down!” For decades he was the volunteer announcer, but he was far more than that: It was as if a Deity had taken notice of rural delight and deigned to join in excitedly from on high.
And here is where tragedy should enter our idyllic picture. But it does not. There was no scandal, no whiff of corruption. When Dustin Haygood got caught with cigarettes, Mr. Stover followed policy, but didn’t stop there. He mentored Dustin beyond petty policy. When a student acted out in class, Mr. Stover upstaged the performance with humor and grace, meeting the twelve-year-old children before him with the one forever within him. There was no great fall, no grave misdeed. He had his sins and flaws, but in the classroom there was naught but perfect flow. Especially when he read.
Each day, whether we had State Testing or fire drills or play day, Mr. Stover would read to us. I can’t say how he decided how long he would read to us. Sometimes it would seem like seconds and other times like days, but it was always lovely and perfect. We heard about monkeys escaping from a circus and harboring in a boy’s backyard and about orphans living in a boxcar. He gave us dystopia in The Giver and made us insiders in the knowledge of violence and class structures in The Outsiders. He read beneath our educational level and over it. He challenged us and moved us and scared us and delighted us, and always with his booted feet rested up upon his desk, cowboy hat on. He read and read and read.
On the first day of this ritual he picked up the first book of John Christopher’s tripod series, and he warned us he’d be reading to us each afternoon and we were free to draw pictures, listen along, or just rest—even sleeping was permitted, but of course, once allowed, none of us craved it. No, he swindled us to listening by allowing us not to. Oh a more rapt audience wasn’t to be found. We fell in love with character and setting and plot and denouement and metaphor without knowing a single definition for any of them.
And then we met Bilbo. Mr. Stover would end each day, whether with Bilbo setting off or with the trolls turning to stone or with the game of riddles in the dark, leaving us groping like Gollum for more. Our imaginations were kindled by The Hobbit as if by the very staff of Gandalf, and when we got to the end, tears were in my eyes, not for the ending of the narrative but for the ending of the book. At home my parents were separating. As a kid, one has little idea what that actually means, but I knew that I could identify with the idea of a magic ring that would make one disappear. No such thing was afforded me, and even if it were, what difference would invisibility make? The path was set, the road laid out—one can’t hide from inevitability.
But in those timeless stretches, the rest of the world faded. It was Mr. Stover’s voice and I’d scrunch my eyes upon my arm, face down on the desk, and it became something different altogether. It became Literature, story, escape, and then, finally, return, only now I had Gandalf’s wisdom and Bilbo’s courage along with me—I was the better for it. Fiction entered the ears, fought to the heart, and could be readily converted to grim reality.
When the story ended, Mr. Stover informed us that this was the prequel to a trilogy of tales involving hobbits, wizards, adventures, and, yes, the One Ring. But, he warned, those books might be a bit over our heads. There, of course, was a rush on the library the next day—the whole of a sixth grade class trying to lay hold of mid-century British Literature. But I didn’t wait till the next day. After school, I had gone directly to the library and had checked out The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I was on the list for Return of the King.
I’m not entirely sure where Mr. Stover is now. Perhaps he is on that horse—named “Snowball” or “Buttercup” or some such thing—returning from some trek into Mordor. Maybe he is camping or on some beach somewhere. It doesn’t matter, I guess, because I know that some part of him is still in that classroom. And that classroom lives on, in me and in so many other students. But even more than the memories is the picture of calling. I think back to that imperfect person doing a job so perfectly, and it is not the stuff of legend, for legend implies past and gone. No, it is the preview of future. For the new heaven and new earth is the stuff of calling. Each of us will be doers of joyous tasks for which we were supernaturally fitted. We will learn and dance and dream and do, all within the perfect heavenly cadence of the flawless Storyteller. His words will paint pictures into reality, and we will become participants in that reality forever.
Such is the ultimate calling. It is the return from adventure and the escape from escapism. It is dream come to life, a classroom transformed, a well-crafted tale read aloud without end.
Gandalf remains among my favorite literary characters—a wizard: wise, true, and good. But is was a cowboy who wrangled him for me. A cowboy: wise, true, and good. A cowboy, called.
This post is part of a series of “living tributes.” Click here to visit the opening post (and the rest of the series). New entries will post Tuesday and Thursday mornings.