We connect with others in a multitude of ways. Sometimes we work the same jobs, participate in the same pastimes, live in the same neighborhood, even enjoy the same foods. And sometimes the connections come about in totally unpredictable and almost bizarre ways.
My friend and former colleague Steve Compson died last week. Our connection was proof.
Steve and I did teach together at Plainville High School, we both coached volleyball, and we were part of a group that kayaked the Farmington River and often looked less than adept doing it. He and I had a great deal of normality in common, but I’ll remember him most as an aficionado of the Firesign Theater—the only such person I ever knew.
It's difficult to explain the Firesign Theater to a nonbeliever—to explain the significance of “shoes for industry” or what it’s like to drive down the “Antelope Freeway.” Steve would have understood those references immediately—he was a fan of the little comedy troupe that, in the 1960s and 70s, parlayed a bunch of weird radio scripts into a series of record albums. Firesign satirized old radio and modern inventions. Their subject matter encompassed the mistreatment of Native American and the advent of the hologram. They were irreverent and satirical. They were most definitely an acquired taste, but Steve and I, despite a notable age difference, shared it.
I won't claim Steve learned comedy from the Firesign Theater, but he knew comedy and he knew timing. Beginning in the 90s the PHS end-of-the-school-year picnics owed much to his comedic intelligence. Some others of us got the laughs and read the funny lines, but Steve was always our editor. His laughter at our writing sessions told us we had something. His silence told us to start over. And we did.
In the shows themselves he was often the straight man, but without him, some of the best material would have fallen flat. He enjoyed the background—would rather be Ed McMahon than Johnny Carson—but the performers and audience alike recognized his contributions.
And yet all that constituted an infinitesimal part of his life. He was first and foremost a son who returned to school every fall with tales of a summer with his folks, kayaking on Cape Cod Bay. We other kayakers were always jealous. He was also, of course, a dedicated classroom teacher and historian, but he was also a seemingly permanent advisor: as one class graduated each June, Steve was there the following September to pick up another and guide them through their four years. His school days extended well beyond the bell: three decades of graduates can attest to his involvement. Like so many other educators, he had grown weary of paperwork and data and theory—he knew that teaching occurred in the classroom, not in speculation but in practice, and he never grew tired of that student-teacher interaction, dedicating more than half his life to it.
I'll miss Steve as a friend. As for his being a former colleague, it’s easy to lapse into clichés at times like this, but I would be negligent if I didn't say, with complete honesty, I never heard another teacher utter a negative word about him. (I am not posting this to FB, but you can read others' reactions here.)
Last night I spoke with a mutual friend who, as a member of the social studies department, worked more closely with Steve than I did. We both felt ambivalent about how his life ended. People with ALS don't “get better,” and to have Steve physically deteriorate day by day while his mind remained sharp would have been a hellish existence. But even if there’s a logically merciful aspect to this, there’s the same loss in the end: having him around was better than not.The loss to all of us is palpable.
And in this time where death has been normalized and even politically trivialized—where the totals often beggar belief and test our very imagination—in this time death has become unceremonious. There is no chance for mourning, for condolences, for sympathy, for shared grief. Locked away as we are behind masks and socially distanced as we must remain, we honor the dead differently—we share a memory on line, recount a story, compose a remembrance, or just hark back to the time when….
And I do the same. For me it’ll always be the goofy weirdness of the Firesign Theatre to whom I still listen on occasion. I still laugh. And in a world where almost everything we’ve ever believed in has been inverted, subverted, or diverted, maybe that's as good a ceremony as we get to honor a friend.