He wore a photographer’s jacket everywhere. In his breast pocket was an exposed pack of cigarettes that he reached for often. His beard was the definition of salt and pepper and he had eyes that dissected everything.
When they talk about teachers saving a student, no single person did more to change my life than Mr. Gene Wright. His classroom became a sanctuary from the rest of the school. He was a savior, mentor and the oldest friend I had at Bonanza High School.
I might have done well in class but I was an absolute mess in every other part of school. I was aimless, filled with nervous energy and a constant distraction. Everything I was interested in wasn’t found in a classroom. If my sister wasn’t in the same grade with me I probably would have ended up with a GED.
That is not to say that I wasn’t learning. I just preferred spending every waking moment reading sci-fi books, watching movies, playing guitar and wandering around the neighborhood. I wasn’t what you would call a bad kid. I was just terribly unfocused. In looking back it was too much time thinking about doing something and not really doing anything at all.
Somehow, I had squeezed through the first two years of high school before I ever had an encounter with Mr. Wright.
Towards the middle of my junior year in school, all of my shenanigans found me in the dean’s office. For an English project, we were required to keep a journal for 30 days and write a report on what had happened to us. I happened to have had a series of life changing events that included losing my virginity, smoking pot for the first time, stealing my mother’s car and a dozen other petty crimes. My teacher took the thick diary that I had submitted and had me hauled into the dean’s office.
My parents were waiting for me in the office and I lost it. I became a basket case. I was being suspended from school for two weeks. I don’t know what was worse: being ejected from school for going over and above a homework project or that censorship was alive and well in Las Vegas. Nonetheless, I was being sent home for two weeks. My sister was to get my homework and my parents scheduled an appointment with a therapist.
Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Wright intervened. He heard about my school project and contacted both the dean and my parents. He told them that he would look after me and force me into his journalism class. I guess the popular consensus was that I was going to continue writing and I might as well be under his tutelage.
I was back in school in two days.
The remaining time I spent in high school was done by Mr. Wright’s side. He gave me not just one but two columns to write for the school newspaper, The Eye of the Tiger. One was a point-counterpoint styled column that argued everything from drug legalization to home schooling. The second column was a human interest column that he named Raskin’s Rhetoric.
It was in the safety of Mr. Wright’s classroom that I learned how to write. Albeit, not great, but without fear. When the school had a disaster of a general assembly, I wrote a scathing review that he published that damn near got me beat-up by members of the uppity student government. I might have been cruel but I wasn’t wrong. He showed me how to set-up a joke and work a punch-line. Mr. Wright loved to laugh but never did. A smile and a wink was as close he ever got to a belly laugh. Nonetheless, it never stopped me from trying to get him crack-up. I definitely attribute a lot of my comedic timing to trying to get a smile from him.
At the end of high school, I was lucky enough to win a couple of Silver Pen awards from the columns I had been writing. The high schools in Las Vegas had competitions and I won columnist of the year. No experience could have capped off my high school experience better. I had Mr. Wright to thank for getting me back in school but more importantly, I had him to thank for believing in me.
The last time I saw Mr. Wright was the summer after my first year in college. To say that I underperformed that first year in school would be an understatement. I damn near failed out my first semester and dodged being kicked out of school by acing my second. I returned home to Las Vegas to spend the summer looking for menial wage work while counting the days before I could return to Reno.
It would be easy to blame my parent’s divorce or being separated from my sister for the first time to explain my grades that first year in college. The reality was that I partied too much, spent all of my free-time in the student newspaper and did anything but study. It wasn’t until I was threatened with academic probation did I even consider opening a book. I was too busy writing for the newspaper and not getting laid.
It was high school all over again but with much more serious consequences.
Mr. Wright called me out of the blue and said he needed help moving furniture at the school. I met him in his old classroom and spent the next five hours hauling tables and chairs around campus. He sent me to a Home Depot twice to pick up supplies and basically yelled at me the entire time.
That part isn’t true.
Mr. Wright didn’t yell. He growled. Through his tense pursed lips he would huskily bark orders and motion with his hand always grasped in a cigarette. He was the only teacher that I knew that smoked in the classroom. Sweaty and exhausted, he took me to lunch as payment for moving things for him all day.
We went to a bar and ordered pitchers of beer for us. Even though he damn knew that I was 19-years old, he filled my glass and puffed his smokes. He stared across the table and said more in a glance than a lecture could ever reach me. In the quiet parts of the late afternoon, we talked about school and what the future held for me.
Even a year out of his classroom, I still felt like I was his student. Yet, time spent in that smoky booth with him felt safe. He challenged everything I said and questioned all of my intentions. We ate burgers and drank pitchers until it was time to go home. I never thanked him for everything he had done for me. In a way, I don’t think he would have wanted it. It wasn’t his style.
Gene Wright died June 4, 2001 in Paris France. While on vacation he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 70. I heard that he was cremated and had his ashes spread in Europe.
I bring up Mr. Wright because he gave me my first by-line for the newspaper. He introduced me to journalism and writing and I have always thought of him as the patron saint of lost Vegas children. Today, I got my first real by-line in a paper of record. I wrote a story about a young high school fighter and the Salt Lake Tribune published it. I think he would have liked it.
In writing this story, I discovered a kid that has more potential to do good than I probably ever will. I was lucky to have assistance from Danyelle White, Bill Oram and Kyle Goon in crafting the story but more than anything I was fortunate to have a subject that was very compelling to write about. I think Danny Galloway is exactly the kind of kid Mr. Wright would have liked to know.
Ben Raskin works at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturdays. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out his podcast, Salt Lake City PubCast. There is rarely a day he doesn’t think about Mr. Wright.