Courtesy of Mt. Vernon Gazette
I first met Paul when I came to West Potomac as a student teacher in 2010. This may surprise those who knew him, but he actually really intimidated me at first. He was the veteran, the cool guy, with the earring, the goatee, and the swagger. As an observer, I asked all the different English teachers to allow me into their classrooms, but because I was intimidated I asked Paul last, toward the end of my stay. When he said, “Sure, come on in! Any time!” and started immediately giving me a ton of material he was using for his classes, I thought to myself, “The cool guy likes me! I’m in!” It’s funny to me now, because I don’t think I could have misjudged this more.
It wasn’t that I was “in,” because the great thing about Paul is that everyone was cool to him. The man taught for more than forty years, but for the brief time I knew him I never saw him worried about carving out his space, protecting his territory, or playing workplace politics. I did see him helping anyone who asked (or didn’t ask – there are many of us with a unit on prefixes that he gave us multiple times), and also I saw him care deeply about the craft of teaching. Now, the combination of his teaching skill and natural helpfulness has made many, many colleagues better teachers, but I nevertheless think it’s Paul’s character that is his greatest legacy.
There’s one night that really represents the kind of man Paul was. Before he retired, many of Paul’s friends and colleagues wanted to surprise him with a boat trip on the Potomac. Mr. Bodaghi and I were charged with keeping him occupied until everyone arrived. It was funny, because when we finally brought Paul to the dock and everyone shouted his name, he just stopped right in his tracks. I can’t say for sure what was going through his head, but at the time it seemed to me that he just couldn’t believe it. I don’t think he ever would have thought that so many people would come out just for him.
It’s this humility that I will remember most. Paul was never more Paul than on that night, surrounded by so many people. Everywhere he went there was someone calling him over to catch up or share a story. Some people he knew for decades, others not nearly so long, but on that boat it seemed like it didn’t even matter: he talked to everyone like they were an old friend. He never stopped talking, actually – not for the entire night. I honestly never saw him happier. And that’s the thing about Paul – he just really, really liked people, and to him, nobody was better than anyone else. He was just here to have fun.
Related article: Reflections on Paul Russell’s 45 Years of Teaching