I think most adults can look back on their childhood and teenage years growing up and identify an adult (other than our parents) who played an instrumental role in their life. A teacher, a baseball coach, a neighbor, a grandparent, etc etc. For me that adult was Mr. Nolde. Mr. Nolde was my Russian teacher through middle school and high school. In the school district I grew up in in the suburbs of Chicago you had to start taking a foreign language in the 6th grade. I wasn’t particularly interested in taking a foreign language and wanted to pick something safe like Spanish or French. My parents looked at the list of available options and seeing Russian as a choice immediately wanted to me to choose Russian saying that it was different and might come in useful. This was in the early 1990s and the iron curtain had just come down a few years before and I think my dad, ever the businessman, saw the opening of capitalism into Russia as a great opportunity and if I had some exposure to Russian that could be beneficial. My parents finally persuaded me to choose Russian and little did I know it would be a truly life changing choice, but not for the reason my dad had hoped.
Believe it or not, I still remember my first day of middle school. My first period, of my first day of 6th grade was Russian class. I sat with the six other kids whose parents had probably also all convinced them to choose Russian as their foreign language. We all sat silently looking around at each other and then all the sudden the door opens and in walks this teacher with a goatee pushing a cart (the kind you’d put a slide projector on), but his cart had an assortment of books, a coffee cup, and lots of loose papers. He pushed his cart a few feet into the classroom, looked around and introduced himself as Mr. Nolde. That’s about all I remember from that entire first day of middle school, but it was my first encounter with a man whose classroom I would sit in every day from 6th grade all the way till I graduated high school.
Mr. Nolde was shall we say…. a different kind of teacher. You’re probably reading this thinking that after seven years of studying Russian I probably graduated being close to fluent in the language. Well….Not exactly. :) While most days we did eventually get around to discussing and speaking in Russian a little bit, I often referred to the class, at least in my own mind, as “Life 101.” We would discuss what was going on in our lives, life lessons about how to deal with disappointment and achieving goals, things like that. Mr. Nolde was always much more interested in making sure that we learned how to become good people who would contribute positively to the world than making sure we understood the ins and outs of Russian verb conjugations. It’s been almost 15 years since I graduated high school, and I don’t remember the tiny details of a lot of the class discussions we had over the years, however the one thing I remember very vividly was that Mr. Nolde always had time for us. When the bell would ring, he would never rush out of class. He would stick behind, and chat with us about whatever was on our mind. We could always drop into his office and chat with him about anything we wanted. Mr. Nolde was the prime example of a teacher who cared about his students. Not just their academic success in the subject that he taught, but in them. He never viewed his students as students. He viewed and cared for them as people. He was funny, witty, patient, kind, smart, and understanding. He was a friend. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. All 7 of us who started the journey together in 6th grade continued all the way through our senior year of high school even though you only needed one or two years of foreign language credits to graduate.
While we didn’t walk away from the our Russian studies fluent Russian speakers, Mr. Nolde was passionate about Russian culture and the “Russian Club” he ran. He would often take us on class field trips to Russian restaurants in the ethnic Russian neighborhoods of Chicago. During our middle school years he would bring in Russian balalaikas (essentially a 4 string triangular musical instrument, kinda like the equivalent of a Russian banjo) into class and teach us how to play them. I don’t know if he was too cheap to buy actual guitar picks, but I remember he would always bring in a Folgers coffee tin, and cut up the plastic lid into large triangular picks! In 1996 during my freshman year in high school Mr. Nolde took a group of us over to Russia on a foreign exchange program. Mr. Nolde even brought along his wife and two young daughters on the trip. While on the surface it might seem odd that his family came along, in reality it felt perfectly normal. We had heard stories of his little kids and had even seen them a few times around the school when they would come in for one reason or another. It had always been clear just how much love Mr. Nolde had for his wife and two daughters. For most of the two weeks we lived with a Russian family, but when we weren’t with our Russian family Mr. Nolde took us through historic Russian sites such as St. Basils cathedral, Lenin’s tomb, and the Winter palace. While high schoolers aren’t typically known for their interest in museums and historical places, Mr. Nolde’s passion and excitement for the country, the culture, and the history, radiated outwards and infected all of us.
After I graduated in 2000 I went out to Santa Barbara for college. During my freshman year Christmas break I came home and found that my high school was still in class for another couple of days. One day I drove back over to see a couple of teachers who I had liked, but mostly to see Mr. Nolde. I found him in the math office (since the district couldn’t justify keeping Mr. Nolde on full time as just a Russian teacher, Mr. Nolde also taught a couple algebra and geometry classes.) His cart with books, papers, and the ever present coffee cup was still parked next to his next desk. We talked for almost an entire hour as I recall until he had to go to his next class. We talked about how my first semester had gone, how I liked the mild Santa Barbara weather and living so close to the beach. Just as I remembered him during my middle school and high school years he was fully attentive, interested in what was going on with me, and witty as ever. As we got up to part ways, I remember thanking him for what an impact he had had on me growing up, and I very vividly remember him making a comment about how we will always remember those who touched our lives. I don’t know if he was talking about me touching his life, or he touching mine. Maybe he meant a little bit of both.
It was the last time I would ever see him.
Randy Nolde died on June 18th of this year. Over the years I’ve thought about him often. I remember hearing from friends a number of years ago that he had retired from teaching and I often thought that I would need to make a point to somehow try to track him down and maybe grab a cup of coffee or lunch with him the next time I was back in Illinois. To my regret, I simply never got around to it. When my sister (who had also been a student of Mr. Nolde) told me that she found out he had died I was stunned and instantly horrified that I had never made the time to see him. My sister passed on a website where there was some information about his funeral and a guestbook where people could leave notes. While I knew that it was rare to have a teacher who you were so close and who you truly looked at as a mentor and a friend, I was not at all surprised to see the many pages of notes of former students of his who clearly had had a similar relationship with their beloved teacher. Not just students of Mr. Nolde’s through his several decades of teaching, but fellow colleagues, and community members who all had been touched by Mr. Nolde’s life left heartfelt messages. On the memorial page, there was an area where you could upload photos. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t have a single photo of Mr. Nolde. In some ways, it makes sense… I knew him in an era before digital cameras, Instagram, and Facebook. I didn’t even own a film camera until I was in college. It felt strange that I didn’t have a single photo of myself with this man who had been so influential for such a long period of the preteen and teenage years. There were only a handful of images that were posted to the site (including the one I posted above). At this point, it’s only the memories I have and those handful of images posted to the site that are left to remind me of Mr. Nolde.
As a wedding photographer I’m constantly aware when I go to a wedding that I’m documenting not only a wedding and a bride and groom, but I have an opportunity to take professional photos of the guests and family members there as well. At every wedding I photograph, there may be someone else’s Mr. Nolde. To me as the photographer that person is just a stranger, a guest of the bride and groom, but to someone else, he or she is a dear friend, a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, coworker, neighbor, uncle, aunt, boy scout leader, or mentor. The photos I take very well could be the last professional photo ever taken of that person. I remember a few years ago a fellow photographer telling the heartbreaking story of getting an email from a former bride whose mother died right after the wedding while she and her new husband were on their honeymoon. The bride was writing to ask for every single photo, good or bad, that had her mother in it. That photographer had the very last photos of her mom ever taken. I’m keenly aware that could very well be me one day, getting a call asking if I have photos of a now deceased sibling or a parent or grandparent or even random guest. That lesson has hit home even harder since I learned of Mr. Nolde’s passing.
We each have our own Mr. Nolde. Treasure the time you have with them and the time that your lives happen to intersect. Take pictures of them and with them often. You never know how many more chances you might have to do that. Even though I hadn’t seen Mr. Nolde in years, when he passed away I lost more than just a high school teacher. I lost a dear friend and mentor, and the world lost a giant. No, Mr. Nolde wasn’t a household name, at least not beyond the homes of District 220, but for those who had the privilege of interacting with him, his humility, wittiness, kindness, and light left an immeasurable imprint. His legacy will not be forgotten in those he left behind.