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Roger Barbee: The promise

By Roger Barbee

Were he alive, Fred Templeton would turn 73 on April 2. However, he died of lung cancer in August 1992 -- too young for him, his wife, and his two children.

A young 51, he was a fine English teacher at Surrattsville High School, where he also was an outstanding coach of soccer and baseball. He also coached youth soccer, basketball, and softball in the Rec League of Alexandria, where he lived.

As a teacher at St. Stephens/St. Agnes, the school his children attended, I casually knew Fred and his wife Sarah, but when his son Michael and later his daughter Kate enrolled in my freshman English class, he and I forged a bond cemented around Leslie Norris' short story "Shaving."

During the late 1980s, I had good results teaching Norris' "Shaving," the story of 17-year-old Barry whose father is dying from cancer.

Coming home from a rugby match, Barry is told by his mother that his father, lying in the family dining room turned into a sick room, is uncomfortable because of his unshaven face. After drinking a glass of milk, Barry announces to his mother, "I'll shave him."

He does, and in such a way that all students who read the story are moved in profound ways. Because of the positive results, I always taught "Shaving" until the news spread around school about Fred's cancer. For the school year of 1991-'92, I chose not to use "Shaving" because Michael would be in my class and I thought that would be too difficult for him. That year the school community watched in awe as Fred, who had taken a leave of absence from Surrattsville, continued to coach his Rec League teams, showing us how to live life at its fullest. However, as he lived and battled, the cancer advanced in such a manner that in late August 1992, as preparations for the coming school year were being made, the news spread that Fred was home, the family dining room having been turned into his sick room, and that if any of us at school wanted to see him, we should come quickly as his lungs were filling with fluid, and his death was imminent.

My friend and fellow administrator, Roger Bowen, asked me to accompany him to visit Fred on a hot, late August morning. I declined, not wanting to see Fred in such a state. Little did I know, but when Roger Bowen returned from his visit with Fred and his family, he gave me an envelope and said, "Fred asked me to give you this."

Asking him what it was, he answered, "I don't know, it's sealed." Going to my office, I opened the envelope and saw a copy of "Shaving," and a note in Sarah's hand that read, "Fred wants you to have a copy of this story, one of his favorites."

Stunned, I immediately called her asking for a chance to see Fred, which she managed to give me that afternoon.

Going into their townhouse, I saw Fred lying in the hospital bed that had been placed in what had been the dining room, just like in the story. I told him my story about "Shaving" and how I had chosen not to use it for Michael's year in my class, and he told me how, when Michael had begun to give him his shots for pain, he was reminded of a story he had taught long ago.

He sent his family looking through all his books, and his sister had found it, "Shaving."

Liking it, he wanted me to have a copy. As my time with Fred waned, I promised him that I would always teach "Shaving" and asked him if he had a particular date that he would like. He said, "Teach it today, the day I died."

I reminded him that school was not in session in late August, but then asked him when was his birthday. "April 2," he answered. We then agreed on the teaching of "Shaving" on each April 2, and since it was his birthday, as the story was being read, cake would be served to the students. So, every April, since 1993, cake has been served while students listen to my reading of "Shaving."

That first year, his daughter Kate sat in my class, ate cake, and heard the story that is so much like her father and brother.

In April 2005, I ran across a reference to Leslie Norris, who was living and teaching in the Midwest. I emailed him my account of his story and he responded, telling me that as a young boy growing up in Wales, he had shaved his father, who was dying from cancer. He told how he had put off writing the story, but finally did.

His father's birthday was April 5, so since 2005 I have felt as if I read it for both men and their sons. It was a promise.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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