I wish you would’ve known him. There really was no one else like Ron Forsythe. Ever. No teacher made a bigger impact on me in the classroom, and I’ve had some great ones.
I can still hear him strutting down the hall, singing the bada-da-da of Miles Davis or some jazz legend, umbrella tapping along the hallway floor. We would smile before he ever made it into the room. And when he arrived in the doorway you never knew what was coming next. Sometimes he would stop, scan the room, and flash that mischievous grin. Something was about to happen. Something was always about to happen with Forsythe. Other days he would stroll right past us, briefcase in hand, calling class into session with his famous anthem of “hubba, hubba, hubba!”
I can’t help but imitate that sometimes to this day. Just saying “hubba, hubba” as I walk in the room some days gets me smiling. My students smile too. They’ve never known (until now) that I was just paying tribute to a man I will never forget. He looms powerfully in my mind even now, four years beyond his death in September 2006.
After spending part of the 1950s as a pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers system and part of the 60s in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, Ron Forsythe spent the latter part of his life teaching English, literature, writing, and life to students at California University of Pennsylvania.
His voice boomed. He shocked people. He was controversial. He forced us to think. He challenged our assumptions and got our attention in a time when a lot of teachers from the old guard couldn’t figure it out.
In ways I appreciate so much more now as an educator, he absolutely dominated the classroom. He had presence yet was wily. Behind those dark glasses churned the mind of a master conductor. He rarely needed to look at a piece of paper yet every second of his class was packed full of meaning and instruction.
I took him five times, no easy feat since those sections always closed quickly. As a 17-year-old freshman, I was blown away on the first day of his class. I wondered if I had made a big mistake by going to college. I squirmed and feared I would never make it. Forsythe always brought the intensity early on. He wanted to eliminate the weak. It would be his way right away or else, “Get out.” You didn’t sleep in that man’s class.
Then the teaching began. I could never believe the patience he had with students who cared. He worked through the room, his hand resting on a shoulder here and there while the questions flowed. The quality of writing from his students was so far above average that faculty from other departments sought him out just to understand how he did what he did.
When asked, I’m sure he said that unlike most profs in the English department, he didn’t have students sit around holding hands and talking about their feelings. Did I mention his colleagues didn’t always appreciate him? Well, the ones that mattered did, and his students adored him.
After I returned for grad school, we continued our friendship. Since he walked everywhere, I would drive him home when I was around. I’d tell him about my life and he’d tell me about the world. Many times when we pulled up to his house, he would open his door, turn back, put a hand on my shoulder, and leave me with one last peg to hang my future on.
I called him after I got hired to teach my first college classes. So cherished were his words that I actually took notes during his phone call. “You’ve got to bring it baby,” he told me.
The last time I spoke to him was in May 2006, just a few months before he died. We had been trying to get together for months but his failing health prevented him from leaving the house. I don’t know if many students were calling him at home at that point, but he was always eager to chat. I gave him the updates on my teaching career. I was going to be fine he said. I told him I would call him again. “Make sure you do,” he said. I could hear the sadness in his voice, the longing for that contact with lives he could impact.
I never spoke with him again. What I most regret is that I didn’t find out about his death until the services were completed. I would have paid tribute to him at the university’s memorial service. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. Even now a lump swells in my throat as I remember one of the most important men I was lucky enough to have in my life. I don’t know if he would’ve agreed, but we are all part of a plan, nothing just happens. Ron Forsythe was a major part of my plan.
I can’t help but smile as I scan the comments about him on RateMyProfessor.Com. He made a mark on so many lives. It’s bittersweet to read all these remarks when those marvelous days of swinging by the old office for a chat over tea are so long gone. I miss him.
I learned so much from him. He taught me to think. He taught me how to write. In a lot of ways, without either of us knowing it, he taught me how to teach, to captivate, to impact.
Yeah, I wish you would’ve known him. Maybe some of you did. We all remember the greatest teacher we ever had, that person who made such a massive impact on your life because one day they decided they were going to stand in front of a classroom for the rest of their lives. Life is short, but the contact we have with others can be great. You’ve got to bring it. If I make half the impact on others that Forsythe made on me, then I’ll be just fine. Hubba, hubba, hubba, baby.
Who was the greatest teacher in your life? I would really love to hear your memories.
Connect with me on Twitter @ClayMorganPA.