My high school chemistry teacher ate a bowl of Raisin Bran with sliced bananas the other morning, then showered, checked his tie, and slung a backpack over his shoulder.
“OK, see ya later, hon,” he said to my mom and went out the door.
For 48 school years, his routine has been nearly the same. But after turning in his final grades, he will retire next week as a chemistry teacher at Gloucester Catholic High School, the only full-time job he’s ever known. All the striped bass off the Jersey Shore should shudder in fear.
The commute to GC is 3.7 familiar miles, past an endless cemetery, the squat starter home where my sister was born, and the shuttered elementary school that we both attended. In Gloucester City, the blue-collar town where my dad grew up, we passed cargo cranes on the river and neighborhood bars on King Street and parked beside the plain-looking brick school wedged between city rowhouses. My dad’s chem lab with the red-glass panel in the door is up three flights of stairs, past a towering statue of the Blessed Mother, always there to encourage him up the last leg, particularly when he smoked two packs a day.
Dad’s desk was cluttered decades ago, when he’d prop me up by his overhead projector. On this June day, it was still a mess, a jumble of paperwork and hunting magazines, the photos of my sister and me supplanted by those of my kids.
For what seems like time eternal, this desk has been my dad’s stage, where he made chemistry somehow fun, like some masterful dentist who distracted you with a joke while jabbing a needle in your gums.
Thousands of students know him as “Mr. Nark,” and even at 40, in his presence I am still “Mr. Nark’s son.”
His stint at Gloucester Catholic actually stretches more than 48 years; my dad went there as well, graduating in 1966. After college — a Kensington doc’s son, he studied premed — he returned in September 1970 to teach chemistry and various other sciences, and moderate the chess and archery clubs. He taught art for a few years when no one else would, mostly making us draw portraits of Sigourney Weaver. Those who couldn’t swept the floor.
I hadn’t caught a ride to the school with my dad in two decades. This ride one recent Friday morning would be our last. Instead of lugging shoulder pads or my wrestling gear, I carried a notepad to capture his magic, even as he prepares to turn off the Bunsen burners for good and hand over the lab keys.
“Hey, Mr. Nark,” an eager student angled. “You going to give me that extra credit or not?”
Another student seemed stuck. My dad was gentle.
“I don’t know, you tell me,” he asked her, cracking a smile. “Does water freeze at 50 degrees?”
My dad is 69 and though a series of health problems nearly ended his career during the last two decades, he got to end it on his own terms.
“Mr. Nark, can you wiggle your ears?” one girl asked, approaching his desk.
He can. He did.
A week earlier, principal Ed Beckett broke the news that Mr. Nark was leaving, breaking the hearts of underclassmen who just missed out on having the same teacher their parents had. My dad had taught the principal, too.
“Bob’s method of teaching, his storytelling, and his unique sense of humor have made him a student favorite for generations of students,” Beckett said at a graduation breakfast. “Yes, Bob is one of the few folks I know that has said to a student: I taught your parents – and your grandparents.”
When my father’s father died in 1957, my grandmother moved her three young kids to Gloucester under the Walt Whitman Bridge. Mary Ann Nark was the city’s nurse and the nurse at Gloucester Catholic, a few blocks from where they all lived. She was the taproot from which all of these memories have sprouted.
My dad and his two younger sisters went to the school and one day during a pep rally in 1966 he spotted a girl in the bleachers. “Who’s that blonde?'” he asked a friend. He and that girl, Nancy, have been married 48 years.
My dad taught my uncle, Bill Jensen, and Bill’s late brother, Dave. “He is a living legend,” my Uncle Bill said last week. “He introduced me to my wife, for God’s sake.”
My father taught chemistry to me, too. I sat near the first girl I ever fell for and still managed a B.
“Yo, Nark, shut up!” my dad would yell to me from his desk.
My dad kept my sister, Jessica, off honor roll in art once because she forgot to turn in a project. He told me he still feels guilty about that.
Dad had a pool company on the side and hundreds of his students, including me, worked for him as lifeguards, acid washers, and painters each spring and summer. My mom’s job security as an office manager derives from the fact that my dad taught her boss, too. Dad helped get me hired at my first newspaper job by calling a former student and asking him to give me a shot.
A year later, on July 4, 2002, three firefighters charged into a burning rowhouse in Gloucester City to rescue three little girls. All six died on that blazing hot, heartbreaking Independence Day, and I knew Tom Stewart III, a Gloucester City fireman who died. He was a GC grad.
Being Mr. Nark’s son, I was the only reporter allowed into the family’s home. A week later, the paper offered me a full-time job.
On this Friday morning, the last student to leave my dad’s classroom was Tom Stewart’s only son, Nicholas.
“I knew your father,” I told him.
“I know,” he said.
My dad and I ate lunch in the cafeteria, and as we walked out, I realized I may never step foot inside this school again, never smell my dad’s caustic lab, or gaze around that claustrophobic gym. The realization will land harder on him.
He wrote an original song years ago about how much he loved Gloucester Catholic, and I watched him sing it once during a talent show in that gym. I get a little emotional when I hear it, because I know how much he meant those words about this school.
“I’m really going to miss it,” he told me. “But it’s time.”