He was smart and kind, but at the same time, tough as nails. He didn't let us get away with anything. As kids, we appreciated that. He didn't aim to be a tall friend of sorts, beloved by all the cool kids. We didn't need another friend running through the halls in the cultish insanity of high school. We needed a leader, someone to steer us.
And Mr. Thompson was that. He demanded our respect, by asking us to respect ourselves. He would bark out orders on the lacrosse field and we would run until our legs burned. He would quiz you on a Moby Dick passage and you'd feel a throb of shame if you'd skipped the reading. You sweated at practice. You did the reading. Because you didn't want to let Mr. Thompson down. He respected you too much for that.
But lying in the hospital bed, puffy-faced from steroids, my former English teacher did not look godly at all. He looked very, very human.
"How are the headaches today?" I asked.
"Better," he said.
"And the speech?"
"Same. I get it but I can't." He motioned with his hand to speed his words along, to no avail. "You know..." he said finally, his voice trailing off.
"Yes," I answered. "I know."
It was 10 years out from high school now, and I was in my training as a neurology resident. Ten years is a world away from high school, but a blink of an eye for an adult. Mr. Thompson had gone on with his life, teaching English, coaching lacrosse, handing out advice and humor to 10 graduating high school classes, while I had gone off to college, then medical school, and finally residency. Now here we were.