Richard Ross was one of the most influential people in my life. He was the Assistant Principal of Guidance at Francis Lewis High School where I spent three amazing years. I think he was the first adult, certainly the first “teacher”, who treated me as an adult but with a deference that commanded me to act as one as well. We discussed politics, both local and global, and we frequently debated the issues. There were times when our opinions differed greatly but he taught me the value of listening fully to an opposing viewpoint and weighing the ideas.
One day we were speaking about racism and our personal encounters with it. He said, “I wouldn’t trade it. Not a single insult, slight or jibe because everything, good and bad, is what makes me me. And I kinda like me. I hope you like you. And if you don’t you’re an idiot.”
He called me “Number One Son” which was a reference only he and I got and it made us laugh. I like to think he liked my sense of humor and duty. I like to think we were friends. Or maybe he was a great educator who had a sense for when a lonely kid needed an adult friend outside the normal adolescent mess. Either one makes him great.
You know that part of the high school movie where the nerd makes a speech declaring his love for that cute popular girl? In real life that speech makes you a pariah and does not get you the girl. Mr. Ross stopped me from making that speech.
He frequently told me to call him Richard in private. I tried it once. I didn’t like it.
New York State has something called the Regents Exams. One year, on the Algebra Regents, I got the lowest (of the people who actually took it) in the state, a 23. It was the angriest I had ever seen him. He was furious and shouted at me to take some things serious. “I know you think it’s below you and that you’re smarter than everyone else, but why not prove it? Take it for real and prove it for once.” He was right and I was embarrassed. So I buckled down, actually studied for the next Regents and got one of the highest in the state; a 98 on the English Regents and a 96 on the History Regents. The next year I took the Algebra Regents again and I passed with a 72. I still hate math.
Mr. Ross knew me pretty well and gave me some advice; “It’s okay to ask for help now and then. And even then, you’re allowed to fail once in a while. In fact, it might even be good for you.”
In my attempts to live up to those words I have failed many times since then.
Last year, on Facebook, Mr. Ross and I started writing and finally I just called him up on the telephone like a proper person. We brought each other up to speed and congratulated each other and gossiped about who was where nowadays. And I had chance to thank him. To really tell him how much his friendship meant to me. And I was glad of it because he was an amazing teacher, a great mentor and a wonderful friend.
Mr. Ross passed a few days ago and the world is poorer for it.