Remembering my colleague of 25 years, Mr. Frank Rose
By Rebecca Williams
They say a teacher lives on through his students,
but in Mr. Rose’s case
it means that our students get to really live.
I recognized the voice on the telephone right away. It belonged to Frank, my colleague, friend, and brother— from another mother.
“Of course, Frank. What’s up?”
“I got the ‘rona.”
This was Saturday. Frank sounded almost chipper, like it was no big thing. Three days later, he was gone.
But this isn’t meant to be some kind of cautionary tale on the dangers of COVID-19. This is about something—or someone—who was more powerful than any virus. It’s about Frank Rose.
“You’re in my spot.”
I can’t be sure this was the first thing Frank said to me, but it certainly might have been. New to the Education family at the French Robertson (a maximum- security prison just outside of Abilene, Texas) I was taking a break in the teacher’s lounge when Frank sauntered in.
Frank had a great saunter. I used to tease him about it. I told him he walked like President Obama.
“No,” he’d reply. “Obama walks like me.”
Everyone knew—or would quickly learn (as I did that day)— the left spot on the sofa was his. We let him have it, not because he intimidated us (even the idea is funny), but because we respected him, we liked him, and we loved him.
Prickly and proud with an ooey-gooey center, Frank was a fascinating man. As a military brat, he’d travelled the globe, eventually settling in Abilene, Texas. Although fiercely proud of his adopted home state, he never picked up the accent. Perhaps this was a good thing. Whoever heard of a paisan from Texas?
The Paisan was his alter ego, the part of him—not a lie but not always on display—who emerged when he felt like shining or when he needed to shine. The other Frank was quiet, conscientious, and kind.
Both Franks were fabulous friends. I saw the quiet Frank offer support to one of his closest friends who had just gotten some devastating news. While she sat at her desk, face in her hands, Frank sat in a chair close by. No words could help, so he offered no words. But the expression on his face said it all.
I’m here. I care. I got your back.
The Paisan sent me some tough love two days after he died! I was caught in an undertow of grief, blubbering (to my cat, I guess) that in a world without Frank, I would never—could never—teach again, when his voice suddenly popped into my head.
“Are you a moron or what?!”
My sobbing gulps turned into hiccups of laughter. It was delicious.
Frank was always there to offer encouragement when I needed it.
“You got your game face on?”
Sports were almost a religion to Frank. As a young man, he’d flirted with making baseball (playing it, reporting it, or coaching it) his profession. When I met him, he was an avid golfer and tennis player. Later, he took up boxing. Frank was a connoisseur of the sport and practically worshipped Ali. One of his greatest accomplishments was being able to hold his own in the ring with a man half his age.
For the last couple of years, health problems whittled away at Frank, mostly stemming from a dangerous case of diabetes. As the disease raged through his tall, slender frame, he had less and less energy. He gave up golf and tennis and boxing. In the teacher’s lounge, the quiet Frank reigned.
The classroom was the Paisan’s domain.
25 years ago, Frank stumbled into teaching at the newly opened French Robertson. When he took over the Changes class, the earth moved, and the angels wept. It was the perfect pairing of subject and teacher.
Changes may be the most important class offered by Windham, the school district that oversees education in Texas’ state prisons. Changes is the pre-release class, an intensive, all-encompassing look at how to make it outside the prison walls.
Helping his students become productive members of society was a pretty big gig, and Frank took it seriously. He spent hours preparing for every class. Everything he did—even ironing his work clothes the night before—sent his students a message:
I’m here. I care. I got your back.
However tired and sick Frank became, something happened when class began. The Paisan took no prisoners. He was an electric public speaker. Of course, he gave his students useful information, but he offered no empty platitudes, no soft talk. If he couched his words in anything, it was humor. He spoke their language, told them the truth, and they loved him for it.
Frank believed in his students. He believed in their ability to succeed. Many former students kept in touch with Mr. Rose, calling him at lunch time, sharing their struggles and triumphs in the free world. As eloquently expressed by his friend and colleague Jody Addy, “They say a teacher lives on through his students, but in Mr. Rose’s case, it means that our students get to really live.”
And I suppose that is what I meant when I said that Frank Rose was more powerful than the virus that took his life.
The Paisan may have left the building, but the Paisan lives on—in his students, his friends, and his family (including the grandson he clearly adored).
Yes, Frank, we do. We always will.
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