in memoriam.

February is coming to a close. This is something I’m having a hard time grasping, mostly because I feel like I was just celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas and that the first day of school was not too far back from that.

It’s taken me almost two months to revisit this blog. Admittedly, I’ve been busy. The last thing I wanted to do during the few spare moments I had was sit on a computer for even longer than I already do regularly. I knew I should be keeping track of what was going on around me, but I didn’t think I needed to blog about it because one of my major changes for 2013 is Project Life.

But one of the major reasons I haven’t sat down to type away is that I knew I needed to to address the second week of January. I didn’t want to do that for the same reason I’ve avoided going to my grandma’s house for a month and  half: facing reality. Putting pen to paper (or in this case fingers to keyboard) makes it real.

Even now, I’m struggling to find the perfect words. I’ve been writing for over a half hour and have gotten as far as three paragraphs. I think the difficulty of this quest for perfection is a completely accurate measure of the way Donald T. Swanson has always appeared in my eyes. The wonderful thing about the fact that I am a member of the same teaching staff that he was is that I still hear new stories weekly about the outstanding life he led and pushed those around him to lead as well.

I continuously tell people that my grandpa was the smartest man I ever knew. He graduated from high school at sixteen and worked in a handful of areas until he started his military career in 1951.  One of the most unbelievable things to me was how major of a role his time in the Army and National Guard played in his life. I read through an “autobiography” that he wrote a few years ago. Pages and pages and pages were dedicated to his years of service.

Hearing my dad, uncles, and aunt talk about him while they were growing up was such a surprise – “Sergeant Major Swanson” was who ran their house. I have absolutely no idea how I went 23 years unaware of his complete devotion to his country. I will say, though, that it so completely explained how the phrase “I’m not yelling!” transitioned from my dad’s childhood, to my childhood, to my current classroom (and likely my future life as a parent).

Instead of knowing my grandpa as a high-ranking member of the military, I knew him as a teacher. While it’s true that this is something we shared, making it worth prioritizing for me, I always saw him living this role on a daily basis. Growing up, people constantly came up to him and asked if he was Mr. Swanson. More often than not, he also remembered them. He was even approached by a woman on the day of my college graduation, 75 miles away from where he spent his teaching career and 20 years after his retirement began. As most people know, it takes something special for a teacher to earn the title of “favorite” from a student who has so many teachers throughout his/her life. It takes something remarkable to earn that title from countless students who are now well into adulthood.

My grandpa had the gift of making those around him feel completely valued. When in conversation with him, nothing else in the world mattered. When hearing a story, he laughed in all the right moments, asked questions when he should. He was proud of every accomplishment, no matter how small. Never once did I feel that he would be ashamed of me, despite not always being proud of my own actions. This wasn’t because I was too afraid to share the story, but because I knew that he never passed judgement.

My grandpa was a laugher and joke teller. Rarely did he tell different jokes from the time before, but I think that was a large part of their appeal. I’m not sure that I was always supposed to let him tell the punchline, or if I was meant to eventually say it on my own, but I always laughed sincerely afterward. I fully believe that was due, in large part, to his contagious joy.

Above my desk at school, a newspaper column about my grandpa hangs. This column was written by a student in the last issue of the school newspaper before my grandpa’s retirement. It describes the many things the he did for the members of the school community, things that he did with what seemed like no effort. It describes how deeply the school would miss him after he left at the end of the academic year. It describes how he embodied the phrase “blood is in the bricks” when it came to his 33 years as a member of the district. However, I highlighted something else, the line that serves as the most inspiration to me (in blue, of course): “Making it all look so easy, when it is all so hard.”

Many times this school year, I’ve looked up at that line and the picture of my grandpa and me next to it. It’s given me comfort. My grandpa may have been many students’ favorite teacher (even though he taught chemistry – yikes!), but he worked really hard to get there. It makes me feel better about how hard this job is for me this year, because I know it was probably still hard for him after over 30 years.

I’ve got big shoes to fill walking through the same halls he did, both figuratively and literally. I hope to be half the educator he was. This would make me really good at my job. But I hope more to be just a fraction of the person he was. This would make me really good at life.


I love and miss you, big guy. Congratulations on 82 years of greatness. I hope you’re running sprints in heaven.