If you think about it, the vast majority of people we encounter in our lives come and go like a passing rain.
You’re at a coffee shop. The barista is friendly. You strike up a conversation about Steve Perry. You remember the chat. Then you remember it a bit less. Then—it’s gone.
Sooooooo many people qualify. The sub you had in fourth grade for a month because your teacher was on maternity leave. The cop who pulled you over for speeding in 1999. The person who walked your dog that one day. The contractor who fixed your basement wall. The annoying guy you played pickup with for a few months in 2010. Truly, our existences are composed of thousands upon thousands of men and women who come and go, but leave nary a lasting trace.
And then, there are folks like Bill Behrends.
Back when I was a student at Mahopac High School, Mr. Behrends was an assistant principal. And while I barely remember most of my teachers, and certainly don’t remember the other administrators, Mr. Behrends was uniquely special. First, even though he was our senior by a good five decades, he did his all to relate. He would talk to kids; engage; find out who they were, what they were talking about; what they were thinking. He wanted to empathize, not merely reign. If he could avoid punishing you, he would. He crossed platforms—back in the late-1980s, the school was crudely divided into groups: Jocks, Freaks, Goths, Geeks. On and on, the crude labeling of immature dolts. But Mr. Behrends, somehow, slid easily into all genres; not becoming a member (obviously), but arriving with an open mind, a big heart.
I actually remember my most lasting experience with Mr. Behrends. Back when I was a freshman, I was going through a particularly rough stretch. At lunch, I was ruthlessly ridiculed and mocked. Whenever I’d leave the table to get lunch, other kids would punch my three-ring binder, bending the metal so it wouldn’t close (admittedly, in hindsight this sounds quaint. At the time it ruined me). Well, one day I returned to yet another dented binder, and I looked across the table at the kid who committed the act. Enough was enough—he had a cardboard box of chocolate milk. I grabbed it, intending to spill it on his pants. Then he grabbed it. We both held tight—and the box exploded, chocolate milk soaring through the air, coating everyone around. I started screaming at the kid, and both of us were immediately sent to Mr. Behrends’ office.
I was sobbing—just a kid at the end of his rope, fatigued by the nonstop harassment and discomfort of adolescence.
Well, the two of us walked in, chocolate milk drenched, and Mr. Behrends asked what happened. I’m sitting there, crying and crying. My first trip to the office. My first time being in trouble. And Mr. Behrends looked at me and said, “First, you’re not in trouble. So relax, calm down, tell me what happened.”
Through heaving breaths, I explained the scenario. Mr. Behrends took it seriously, listened, spoke to the other boy, insisted we shake hands, take it easier on each other, think about how it feels to have your shit dented every day.
It was the last time anyone touched my binder.
I bring this up because, moments ago, I learned that Mr. Behrends died two days ago at the age of 92. Before reading his obituary, I never knew of his time in the marines during World War II; never knew of his time at National Cash Register Co.; never knew he had founded Mahopac Relays or was an active parishioner at our local Catholic church; never knew he had six children.
I just knew him as Mr. Behrends.
The assistant principal who, all these years later, I still remember.