The old gentleman

Last Wednesday, I was subbing at Stuart Hall - a private school two blocks from my house in Staunton.  During sixth period, a trusted student had been using a laptop to show Chemistry podcasts on a screen.

Chemistry podcasts.  Among the numberless manifestations of online learning, there are now podcasts on subjects as obscure as titration available for download.  

That surprised me.  I was also surprised that - forty-five years after learning to loath Chemistry as a Thomas Dale sophomore - I still dislike Chemistry.

Therein lies the power of a teacher.

I loved Biology because of Miss Spencer, and French because of Monsieur Blackmon.  I hated Chemistry because of a teacher who will remain unnamed - but whom I once very nearly succeeded in incinerating with a Bunsen burner.


In all three cases, my teenaged impressions remain essentially unchanged.  I suspect this is true for many of us.  

Teachers matter.

But back to last Wednesday.  

During my lunch break, I used the classroom laptop to check online for smoke from the Sistine Chapel.  After sixth period, I checked again, only to discover an umbrella-covered crowd seething with anticipation.

White smoke!

Since I had no students for the final period, I was free to leave.  But I also had a large screen on which to witness history, so I stayed.

And I’m glad I did.

I’m no longer a religious person.  The older I get, the more comfortable I am with that fact.  

But I’ve been a student of leadership since I started reading little Signature biographies at the age of six.

And I’m an absolute geek about elections.  I stayed up with Dad all night in November, 1960 - when I was nine - to see whether Kennedy or Nixon would win.

During the May, 2010, British parliamentary elections, I stayed up most of the night watching the various constituency returns and delighting when the Greens elected their first-ever Member of Parliament.

Lately, I’ve been listening at night to BBC reports on the typically-absurd elections in Italy, the unfortunate outcome in Kenya, etc.        

But nothing in electoral politics tops a conclave of the College of Cardinals.  No voter surveys, no credible rumors, no exit polls - nothing, until the winner makes his appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica.

And this result blew me away.

There, on that screen in the chemistry lab, I saw a kindly-looking old gentleman - seeming very uncomfortable in a plain alb - stepping onto a balcony to confront a vast convocation of humanity.

He looked stunned, rather like young NFL quarterback after his first experience of being sacked by a Pro Bowl linebacker.

The old gentleman stood stock-still.  He appeared to slump under an invisible burden.  His smile was feeble, and when he waved, his elbow didn’t get much higher than the bottom of his rib-cage.    

Then a microphone was held in front of him, and he spoke.  “Buona sera”, he said.  

Good evening.

He made a small joke, to the effect that his brother Cardinals had gone to the ends of the Earth - in his case, Argentina - to find a Bishop of Rome.  The crowd laughed.  He seemed to breathe a little.

Then the old gentleman did something strange.  Instead of blessing the crowd - as new popes have always done - he asked the crowd to bless him.  And he bowed deeply - not a little head bow, but a deep reverence - and began to pray.  

I was immediately reminded of the lovely moment at the end of King Lear, when the old king speaks to his loyal daughter, Cordelia:  

“When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down

And  ask of thee forgiveness.”

A moment of humility.  From reports of those present, that moment won over the vast crowd in St. Peter’s Square.  This unexpected choice - this old gentleman - was suddenly beloved.

From that point on, the old gentleman became a pope.  He stood a bit taller.  His shoulders seemed to relax.  He moved through the ritual part of his appearance without a hitch.

Then he took the mic back - surprising his would-be handlers - and wished the crowd good night and a pleasant sleep.  He smiled and waved - this time, with his arm extended - and went off to face his new responsibilities.

I’m a student of politics and leadership.  I’m also an actor.  I can be fooled, but not easily.  

And the old gentleman who is now Pope impressed me.  

Even now, thinking back on those few moments - Pope Francis on the balcony, myself watching from a Staunton classroom - my eyes grow moist.

I have no answers about spiritual matters, but I greatly admire human courage and leadership.  I’m awed by the struggle which a genuinely good man or woman goes through when great responsibility descends upon them.

I believe I saw that on Wednesday afternoon.  I wish Pope Francis very, very well.


Opinion Page-The old gentlemen by Rick Gray

Dear Rick,

I'm touched that you were touched. It's rare to see
humility these that of Jesus. And if it
can be recognized by someone who claims not
be "religious", how very fortunate.


Hi Rick,
It's Lori Johnson.
Hope you are well. There are about 7 colleges
that I don't believe you mentioned that are
on the site (Colleges for Exceptionally
Gifted Students).

I thought I'd look them up individually and see
how they're doing things for their gifted. I'll let you

Also, I submitted an article to the Village
News about how to drive in
the snow and ice. I'm originally from PA
but have made Chester my home for the last 9
years (a little late to be submitting
snow articles but maybe to be put on file
for next year?) I've had a few back and forth emails
with Mark, the editor. I told him I was doing research
for you. He said that he would tell you he spoke with
me...just a heads up.

Talk with you later...again, a beautiful, touching article.

Rick, It was fun to remember


It was fun to remember those teachers again. I agree on all three. I think I might have liked chemistry in other circumstances.

There was a history teacher (I'm not good at remembering names) who helped me like history, though I was too dumb to recognize its importance at that age.


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