Tuesday October 9, 2012

When I was 19, living in New York City with the unfamiliar, crashing sounds of city life just outside my fifth-story window, I had one of those life-quote postcards tacked to my headboard.

It said, "Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.'" The beautiful quote from the Talmud, a central text in Judaism, is the kind of thing you find etched on coffee mugs in Hallmark stores selling a bit of inspiration. My homesick self latched onto the quote. I've carried it with me every stop along my journey because it always reminded me of where I came from.

In the small town of Downsville, N.Y., where I grew up, I had many angels encouraging me. I'm sad to say that one of those angels found his final resting place last week, after spending more than a month in a coma since his motorcycle collided with a deer.

Mr. Kromer was a longtime English and Spanish teacher in Downsville who first welcomed my family to the town when I was 3 years old. His goofy smile, big glasses and warm heart brought comfort to our family in a town that originally saw us as outsiders.

In junior high school, Mr. Kromer introduced me to the complex literary world of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" series and the its secret world of Biblical references. I fell in love with the streets where Johnny and Ponyboy in "The Outsiders" fought and loved -- their stories narrated by Mr. Kromer, who read chapters out loud to the class, sometimes standing up abruptly, pacing because the story had grabbed him.

In high school, when I struggled to find myself under the harsh microscope of suffocating small-town life, he checked in on me often with a "How's it going today, kiddo?" He had a knack for finding kids who, like Johnny and Ponyboy, were outsiders. Whether in need of a silly joke (dubbed "Kromer jokes," they were famous in town) or a safe, quiet place to study, he was always there. He cheered me on from the bleachers during my career on the pitcher's mound, and got me through the oral portion of the New York State Spanish regents by tutoring me when I expressed that I was nervous about it.

He was a kind, funny man who cared about the students. With his passing last week, my town mourned, remembering a man who seemed to touch the life of just about every student who walked through those halls in some special, quiet and meaningful way.

To so many of us, he was that angel bending over us whispering, "Grow, grow." And for that, I'm thankful. Thankful for the man who was silly enough to tell the same duck joke over and over again to make us laugh, for the man who gave me my first tough edits with a red pen, and made me fall in love the power of a good narrative.

So, this one's for you, Mr. Kromer. I hope you've found peace and happiness in knowing that students like me did indeed grow thanks to you.

Lindsey Hollenbaugh is The Eagle's online editor. Follow her on Twitter at @BerkshireBabyE.