by Stephen Parrish

’ll call him “Marvin,” the kid in my high school literature class who Mr. Stoekl caught defacing a book. Marvin was a loner, a pimply-faced introvert who probably suffered from attention deficit. During lectures he often scribbled in his textbooks, which were on loan from the school.

Teachers are obviously trained in stealth tactics, because misbehaving students never see them coming. Marvin was unaware Mr. Stoekl was onto him until the big guy’s shadow crossed his desk. By which time it was pointless to slam the book shut, tuck the pen away, and conceal all evidence that he had written “STOEKL BITES” in the margin of his poetry anthology.

“Son,” Mr. Stoekl said, occupying the empty desk next to Marvin, “please don’t do that.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Mr. Stoekl. I didn’t mean any offense.”

“Offend me all you want. Just don’t offend the book.”

Mr. Stoekl was unlike any of our other teachers. He grew up in eastern Europe, immigrated to the States in his early twenties, and went to work in a factory. A son he put through college became a high school teacher and spoke so fondly of his career that Mr. Stoekl got hooked. At 65 he retired from the factory and enrolled in a teacher certification program. At 70 he graduated and was hired by my high school. At 75, one year after catching Marvin writing “STOEKL BITES” in his poetry anthology, he retired again. Our town honored him as “Man of the Year.”

“You think it’s just a stack of pages glued together,” Mr. Stoekl said to Marvin. “Abstract ink smudges. Something that used to be a tree.”

“Sir, I—”

“Most of those writers are dead. What they wrote has survived them, and may likely live forever. What you wrote on their distinguished pages won’t survive the school year.”

Mr. Stoekl went back to his desk at the front of the class, and Marvin sat staring down at the book still open in his hands. After a few minutes he drew two neat lines through “STOEKL BITES” and put the book away. He never marked in one again.

Mr. Stoekl didn’t live long after retiring from my high school. But the lessons he taught will one way or another live forever. As for Marvin, he and I lost touch shortly after this incident, although I hear he has since authored a few books of his own, runs a literary review, and writes in his blog about having respect for books.

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