It is the custom here for those of us to occasionally take a moment of personal privilege and write about non-political topics. I will do that at length today. By reading the following you’ll also learn a lot about me, and part of the riddle of how Peach Pundit in many ways came to be what it is today. Or at least, a bit about the training the guy who runs it has. Which is, in effect, none – save the instruction from a man named Patrick Vincent Sennett. As such, the following isn’t about me, but about a man who spent a quarter century teaching me and those like me how to be a writer, a citizen, and a man. Thank you in advance for your indulgence.
The note I received Friday morning says that Patrick Sennett died December 17th. That was eleven days ago, and thus it is too late to attend a funeral or even send flowers. But the thing that should be noted most of all is that they buried the lede. The important thing here is that Patrick Sennett lived, for a full 74 years. We are better for that.
Most of my friends who know him knew him as our teacher. He taught 26 years in the Fayette County school system, and afterward as a shooting instructor with the NRA. During many of his teaching years he was the faculty advisor for the school newspaper – The Tiger’s Roar. I doubt many of us appreciated it for what it was at the time, but it was professional enough to both win awards from the Georgia Scholastic Press Association and turn a profit. Most importantly, it was one of the many vehicles Mr. Sennett used to teach us life lessons. Many of those lessons weren’t the ones found in any curriculum. Most of them were among the most useful that I carry with me three decades later.
My freshman year of high school he taught me not only journalism but also economics. In fact, He taught me at least one class every quarter of my high school experience largely because I enjoyed his journalism class so much. In addition, he also taught history, civics, and “current events”. He taught about politics but to this day I don’t know if he had partisan leanings.
Mr. Sennett had excellent training to be a public school teacher. He served two tours in Vietnam.
I hesitate to write any about his service, because although he would talk about it candidly when asked, I honestly can’t remember which stories were about him and which were about any of his band of brothers. He was not a boastful person and the period of the mid-eighties that I inhabited his classrooms was a time when we as a country were just coming to grips with how badly we treated our returning servicemen that fought that war. As I said, he was candid, but not bitter. He was proud but not arrogant. He was a man who was comfortable and confident in himself – and did his best to teach us all to be that way in with ourselves. Let it be known without reservation that he served his country well, both while wearing the uniform and for many years afterward.
As one of my former classmates said of him last night, “He taught me to question everything ever reported”. He could do this because he had also run a newspaper or two. The man had experience and wisdom. And so beyond teaching me and others things such as “a” and “lot” are two separate words, that headlines without verbs are titles, and that deadlines weren’t deadlines if you were allowed to turn in assignments late, he taught the rest of us lessons and skills that transcended our subject matter.
His lessons came from the heart, though he would have never wanted us to know that. But we did. Beyond his “gruff for effect” disposition was a man who also had a wife at home battling a long term degenerative illness. As happy as he was whenever he was able to experience one of us excel, nothing would compare to his excitement when a medical breakthrough allowed her to walk again for the first time in years. He was, first and foremost, a family man. Those who came into his class willing to learn became a small part of a very large family.
There was no subject that he taught for which “a well-organized, five paragraph essay” was not a suitable test format. He didn’t want us to know things, he wanted us to be able to explain things.
He loved explaining as well, and with that came his gift of storytelling. He was, as was described of President Jed Bartlet’s character in The West Wing, a “father of daughters”. As one might expect a proud Vietnam Vet would be, he was a bit protective of them and loved to tell of his routine when young men would come to pick them up for a date.
He of course insisted they were to be picked up at his home, and he reveled in answering the door. Upon the bell ringing, he would quickly swing the door open and scream to the unsuspecting gentleman caller “What the hell do you want?!?”
He told us that many said “wrong house”, and one fell off the porch as he scrambled to run away. But for those who could muster “I’m here to pick up your daughter sir”, they were then greeted with a much calmer voice that said “Oh, welcome son. Come right in.” He chuckled and said he had “a lot of respect for those poor boys”. And when asked, he also said he knew that despite some minor protests, he knew his daughters were actually happy that “dear old Dad” had a thorough screening process.
He knew how to be blustery for effect. He knew when to back it up. And he knew if you had the coolness and confidence to know when to do which, you could spend most of your life quite calm and seemingly peaceful.
It is probably that lesson – and those from his actual journalism class – that I’m still trying to learn. We wrote stories and editorials that routinely caused frustration for our school administration, much as we routinely do here at Peach Pundit regarding our government officials. He made sure that while we were “questioning everything”, that we were also fair and respectful. I’ll admit that there are days when I exhibit that as a lesson learned better than others.
He did his best. He also knew that eventually we would all leave his classroom and our school. He wanted us to be prepared to take responsibility for our actions and inactions once we were gone. He, above all else, treated us like adults because he wanted us to be able to handle being adults.
Along the way, he taught most of us who went through Fayette County High School for at least a class or two. The amazing thing is that he managed to connect with virtually everyone, from honors students to those just getting by. Towards the end of his teaching career he took charge of a program to prevent dropouts. Some of our last conversations were about his work in that area. He was interested in discoveries of options that were able to give at risk students – from a wide range of intellectual capabilities – alternatives that allowed them not only to get a diploma, but also get a head start on who they were ultimately going to be in life. He seemed to be succeeding, as he had always done.
I’ll end with a word about those deadlines. I hadn’t seen Mr. Sennett in too many years. The last time we spoke he was volunteering on the campaign of one of his former students – now the Senate Majority Leader. He was an instructor at a shooting range in Fayetteville and we spoke of my need for a tune up. His name came up in conversation a few days ago with another former classmate and I wrote in my list of new year’s things to do that I needed to go see him. That’s a deadline that has now passed, and is one that the assignment cannot be turned in late.
Thus, if you have or had a Mr. Sennett in your life and need to make that call of thanks, it’s best you do it now. Sometimes our deadlines are posted. Sometimes they come before you expect them. Don’t cheat them or yourself out of the opportunity to have that conversation.
Mr. Sennett was as fine of a man as I have known. He served his country well. He taught us much. Those lessons live on. And those of us that carry those lessons will miss him.