A teacher's lesson on living life fully

July 05, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE FINAL moments of a 38-year teaching career, there was Lynn Mayer, drinking cappuccino at twilight on a rooftop in Italy, with his students around him and a village festival in the square below, and thoughts of his doctor's grim pronouncement somewhere on the other side of an ocean.

Nine months ago, Mayer began noticing loss of control of one foot, and then the other. In class, he sometimes had trouble balancing himself. Five months ago, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, which causes progressive muscular atrophy, fibrillar twitching, spastic irritability of the muscles. A few months ago, Mayer used a walker, and now he's pushed in a wheelchair.

"Usually," his doctor says, "the prognosis is three to five years."

"That," Mayer was saying Friday, "hits home."

What also hit home was the simple desire to make the most of time, not to sit in a dark corner of a room brooding about a bad break. Mayer, 62, had taught in Baltimore County schools for 36 years, retired briefly, then taught the past two years at Towson Catholic High.

He taught history, but it wasn't the standard names and dates and which generals captured which bloody battlefields. This was a history of ideas, and it incorporated lots of art and literature and, at the end of this school year, a two-week exchange program for 15 of his kids with a school in the northern Italian town of Salo.

Mayer intended to join them. Years ago, in college, he'd nurtured dreams of studying in Italy but never quite made it. Now, at the end of his teaching career, he feared he didn't have the strength for two weeks abroad but decided that he and his wife, Brenda, and two of their sons, Jeff and Steve, would try for one.

And then the tribulations began.

At Washington's Dulles airport, a tornado watch delayed their flight for 90 minutes, and they finally left for London at 10: 30 the night of June 13. When they arrived at London's Heathrow Airport for a connecting flight to Milan, Italy, where they were to hook up with the students' tour bus, British Airways decided not to dock in the terminal.

The plane stopped on the tarmac, meaning Mayer in his wheelchair had to be taken down 45 steps. Clearly, not a good idea. The ground crew said wait. And wait -- until they brought a hydraulic lift for assistance.

"It took them," says Brenda Mayer, "one hour to get the lift up 30 feet in the air, and take us to point A, and then another 45 minutes to get another British Air wheelchair to go to point B. Rules, rules. The bottom line was, we missed our connecting flight to Milan."

They got there three hours late. The kids' bus was gone, and the kids assumed Mayer had backed out. To make matters worse, the Mayers' luggage was gone, and there was no wheelchair at the airport. Mayer had checked his own wheelchair at Dulles, assuming he'd easily find another in Italy.

"It's pretty funny now," he was saying Friday. "But, there we were, for 20 minutes trying to explain things to a very nice lady from the airport who spoke only broken English. Finally, she found out our luggage was still in London and would catch up with us in three hours. So we waited, and it finally arrived at 9: 30 that night."

At which point, the fun really began. British Airways gave the Mayers a station wagon and a driver who spoke no English and acknowledged no speed limits. From Milan to Florence, he drove a breakneck 100 mph, by mountainous turnpikes and hills and tunnels, with music on the radio and the Apennine mountains all around and Lynn Mayer in the front seat beside him.

"What more dramatic way can you go?" Mayer was laughing.

And what lovelier way to cap a 38-year teaching career? At the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Mayer took his students through the evolution of Renaissance art. There were the early church paintings, there was Michelangelo's first painting, there was da Vinci, there was Botticelli's "Birth of Venus."

"You could see the changes coming over the kids," Mayer says. "That's the really enjoyable thing. They were in a special place, with all this history around them. There's a maturity that develops very quickly, a greater appreciation for what they have in their own lives, but also for the culture they're seeing."

As he sat in his wheelchair and led the kids through the gallery, other tourists joined the group and listened to Mayer's lecture. Some thanked him afterward.

"It was a pretty exhausting week," Mayer says, "but very fulfilling. On the last evening, we were all on a roof drinking cappuccino, and in the square below was a festival. There were people in Renaissance costumes, men tossing flags, and there were horses and drums and a wedding procession. It was a lovely moment."

It wasn't easy. Brenda Mayer says her husband "felt like a sack of potatoes from being carried on and off the bus three times a day, and like a milkshake from being wheeled over old Roman cobblestones at least four hours a day. But we saw and did everything."

"And," says Lynn Mayer, "it taught me, whatever time I have, I have to make the most of it."

It's a lesson for us all.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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