Strange how the mind works, isn’t it? For some reason this morning I got up and was thinking about William Hall, a teacher I had in my sophomore year of high school who passed away tragically and quite young when I was in college. This was at Miraleste High School in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. When I think about people who seeded my spiritual life, such as it is, he would have to be at the top. Some things were troubling me today and I had the strongest feeling that if Mr. Hall were alive, 26 years after I last saw him, he would be the exact right person to turn to. I got all misty about him, which I don’t normally do.
He taught Western Civilization and opened each year ritualistically by throwing an old black Holy Bible, with a little cross on the cover, clear across the room. The Bible would land, splat, on the floor and a girl could be counted on to gasp, “It’s the Bible!” I can’t recall what his point was exactly, but he would then declare, “It’s only a book!”
He had a big grey beard and glasses, walked with a limp, and wore corduroy pants and fisherman smocks. He had phrases he would use, that he was known for: “Get with the program!” “Tough as nails! This test is nails, I tell you!” He led us through a survey of Western civ with incredible enthusiasm and a special attention to religious developments. In a unit on medieval cathedrals, he would demonstrate “Sooaaring buttresses! Sooaarring!” with great upward swoops of his arms.He was just back from a year’s sabbatical in England and was all jazzed up for socialism. He never called anyone, at least not a boy, by his first name, only his last. I was “Kaye” (this was before I changed my family name back to its original form).
You got a very strong religious vibe from him but it was hard to nail down. He often bashed the Catholic Church. When my friend Bennett and I pestered him to know what religion if any he himself professed, he wouldn’t say. The next year, we took his comparative religion class, and kept pestering him. Somehow, it seemed important to me to know. My guess was that he must be Jewish. Did I mention he and Mrs. Hall were known to have a huge number of kids? Something like seven or eight.
There was nothing pious or showy in Mr. Hall’s personality but there was something — I don’t know how else to put it — good about him. Just good. Once I lied to him about why I had missed class and I learned later that he knew differently from Bennett. Neither the lie nor the real or pretended reason was at all interesting, but the thought of lying to him now still makes me cringe. He never said a word about it.
Looking back, the year I took his Western civ class was the year I started putting on tefillin and saying the Shema some mornings. I saw that there must be something more out there than my sweetly vacuous Reform Jewish upbringing implied. At the end of the comparative religion class, on the last day of the school year, Bennett and I confronted Mr. Hall one last time and demanded to know if he was Jewish. Somehow, the figure of seven or eight kids at home hadn’t registered on us.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ll tell you.” We waited. “I’m Catholic,” he said and gave a sly look. We were stunned but it turned out he was entirely serious.
A very serious man, he provoked religious thoughts in foolish teenagers not by preaching at them but in this very roundabout way. He was too discrete, or maybe too crafty, to say anything directly about his religious beliefs then. I have the sense he was very wise and would be a wise counselor.
As I was saying the Amida prayer this morning I thought of him when I got to the benediction that speaks, brokenheartedly, about the rarity of true, reliable counselors in this life: “Restore our counselors as of yore; remove from us sorrow and sighing.” Were he alive, I would love to talk with Mr. Hall now. Given his passing, it would be so nice to talk with Mrs. Hall, whom I never met, and ask her about her husband. Maybe by some providential coincidence, she or one of their kids will read this and get in touch.