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.
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.
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.
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.