The Wind, Ever At My Back
When Dominic invited me to write for the NJ OMPF, I knew what I was going to write. One piece would be about my firstborn son discovering cannoli. The other would be about an old friend.
I don’t live in NJ anymore, but I spent about a third of my life there. Went to high school, learned to drive, dipped a toe or three into theatre, met my future wife though we had no idea at the time. And I lived not so far away from Passages Theatre, as it turns out. I lived out near Princeton Junction & Grover’s Mill. I was there for all the War of the Worlds 50th Anniversary stuff. I graduated from West Windsor Plainsboro High School back when there was only one.
There were a couple of teachers who really got me. They knew where I was coming from, they were able to challenge me and channel my energy, they let me write. English teachers, the choir director, those make sense. And then there was my first social studies teacher.
Back then, the school went from seventh grade through twelfth, there was no middle school. I had transferred in at the tail end of seventh grade, marvelling at the early 1970s styling of the building. Lots of open spaces and team teaching, very few windows. Curves and angles in odd juxtaposition, a sunken library, a mezzanine, a theatre with no wings and an orchestra loft…it’s an interesting building.
I really didn’t get to know many people that month, but I did like my social studies teacher. He learned quickly that I was a writer–I’d always been a writer–so we got to talking about books, movies, plays, all that jazz.
Ninth grade, I took his elective class, Anthropology/Modern Europe. It was two short classes, each lasting half the year. I didn’t really have any interest in the topic per se, I took it mainly to hang out for forty minutes a day. Of course, I wound up working more and harder in that class than in the required ones.
Eleventh grade, I took his IPLE class. That’s Institute for Politics and Legal Education. Again, probably did more work in that elective than in anything “real.” And since I haven’t gone into a career in either politics or law…
The rest of the time, we’d catch up between classes, hang out in study halls. He read a lot of random short stories I’d turned out, and helped find me a job as a student reporter for the local newspaper. That evolved from a news column to a humor column when the editor realized his readers didn’t care about high school news & events. That led to other writing work around Princeton. I’m pretty sure he had a hand in getting me nominated for the Governor’s School of the Arts. At the time, the school was used to having math and science stars, but they weren’t sure what to do with us writing types.
His philosophy had always been to teach students how to think for themselves. It wasn’t so much about memorizing facts and figures as how we processed and understood them.
Early on, he had a parent/teacher conference with my mother where he said, point blank, “David learns more at home than he does from here.” He was one of the few who was happy to work with that, to take up that gauntlet.
At the end of Anthropology, we had an oral presentation. We were each to choose a culture and describe where it came from & (if applicable) where it had gone. We had to have three examples of items unique to this culture, and then explain how & why they had developed these items. I asked if I could make up a culture. He didn’t even blink. The rest of the class wasn’t thrilled, but it was an elective, it didn’t really matter. Once we started presenting, they realized I’d also woven a lot of jokes into the presentation. It was by no means serious, but it took what we had learned about cultures & how they evolved, how they developed specific tools, etc. (I’d been reading “Always Coming Home” by Ursula K. LeGuin at the time, so making up a culture from whole cloth was already on my mind.)
That was the first time I made up the subject of a major project, but it wouldn’t be the last. Thanks to him and his example, they were always fully sanctioned, and they all earned A grades.
He also gave me the best single piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. “The only way to become a better writer is to write.” I said that editing was important, too. “I cut that part.” Easy laugh line. “But yeah, you won’t know what to edit if you don’t keep writing.” Dropped the mic.
We stayed in touch after I’d graduated. I was in the area for several years after that, so I’d go out to the occasional soccer match–he was a well-decorated soccer coach for the school. Whenever there was an alumni thing, we’d catch up. After I’d moved, married and had a child, we went back to visit when the choir director retired.
A quick tangent. By that point, they’d built additions onto the school, added windows everywhere, closed off some open spaces and made it much more like a traditional school building. They’d also split into a middle & high school, then a second high school over in Plainsboro, which was very much a traditionally designed school building. And it was full of windows. My wife can attest to this: we wandered the new building, pushing the baby stroller, and I kept growling, “Fucking windows! THEY HAVE FUCKING WINDOWS!” Fortunately, it was long after school had let out; we were there for an alumni choir rehearsal. I just needed to share that detail. He loved hearing about that.
I introduced him to the new family, he told me about his new family, we traded little local gossip. He was stunned by the baby–our firstborn was only a few months old–and enjoyed hearing the story of how I met his mother. And as we left the building, he said, “May the road rise up before you, the wind ever at your back.”
That was the last time I saw Mr. Welsh. Call me Brian, he’d said, you’ve earned it, you’ve spawned. We traded email addresses, promised to stay in touch. Traded a little detail here & there, followed each other’s news that popped up online. But life gets in the way.
I saw it first on Twitter. Another alum, one year behind me, tweeted an RIP. That didn’t seem right, so I hit Google. A story in each of the local papers, a mention on one of the tv stations. It was more than just a death, it was much, much worse. I tweeted back, we shared our shock, grief, all the Kubler-Ross stages. I wouldn’t be surprised if people in the cast, the crew, the audience recognize the story, it was in all the papers there for a few days.
Even now, two and a half years later, it doesn’t seem real.
I don’t want to say any more before the festival. All you need to know is, the play is set in a bar. It’s later that night. And this one minute play is dedicated to the memory of Brian Welsh. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
-David J. Loehr
David J. Loehr is a playwright, artist-in-residence with Riverrun Theatre Company, and the editor & artistic director of 2amt.