Tasting Life Twice

The Secret of Gene Norris

In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his high school English teacher who, in addition to being an important mentor, ended up becoming a very close friend. In their final phone conversation, as Gene Norris was dying with cancer, he said to Pat:

“Tell me a story,”he commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself.  His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves.  All were ecstatic to be part of the dance.

One student who was part of the dance of Gene Norris’ life was a young lady who showed up at the reception that followed Norris’ funeral. Conroy writes,

“As I walked along a side street, a beautiful young woman called out to me, ‘Mr. Conroy?’

I turned and this pretty woman kissed me and said, “You don’t know me, but we met when I was three years old.  You were the May king and my sister was the May queen.’”

“Ah!  Your sister is the lovely Gloria Burns,” I said.  “But why are you here?  Did you know Mr. Norris?  You’re too young to have been a student of his.”

“My first year at Robert Smalls,” she said, “I was such a mess.  In trouble.  Boys.  Drugs.  That kind of thing.  They sent me to Mr. Norris.”

“He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Mr. Norris told me to come to his office every day at lunch.  We could talk and get to know each other.  I went there for the next two years.  Two years. Yet he didn’t even know me.”

“You got the best of Gene,” I said.

“He saved my life.  He literally saved my life.”

“Come on in,” I said, putting my arm around her.  “I’ll introduce you to a couple of hundred people who’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world,” she said.

“You were.  That was Gene’s secret.  All of us were.”

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