As you grow older, you begin to see memories shift from mostly folks still alive and around you to more and more memories of those who have died or are no longer around you.
Some stick out in your mind, most certainly family, but also others who touched your life or otherwise left an impression.
One of those for 40 years of biology students in eastern Hawkins County was Gary Birchfield, known as Mr. B. to his students at Church Hill High School from 1970 to 1980 and at Volunteer High School from 1980 to 2010.
Although all teachers are special people because they shape young minds and lives, you won’t find many if any people who had Mr. B for biology who don’t have fond memories of him and his classes.
I had Biology I at the old Surgoinsville High School with Anita Baker, but at Volunteer, after we merged with Church Hill High, I took Biology II with Mr. B and graduated in 1982.
BIOLOGY II MEMORIES
We did taxidermy. We dissected things and we planted trees at what was then a new school that this year marks its 40th year. We went to Roan Mountain, sampled ramps (or wild onions), and lay on the ground on a bald, listening to complete silence that was broken only briefly by a plane high in the sky.
He also would take other science classes out to creeks for students to get up close and personal with the critters and ecosystems there.
Once during football homecoming spirit week, I was dressed up as a hippie with an old acoustic guitar painted to match my outfit. In his classroom, the tension of six metal strings pulled the front right off and up, but Mr. B found some small tacks or nails and wood glue to fix it. Thus, it had a built-in tremolo it didn’t have before.
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL
I went off to college and then to adult life, but Mr. B. popped up along the way at high school reunions and as Santa at Church Hill Christmas parades. I also ran into him once at a Science Bowl competition, and in 2010, a colleague wrote the article when the Volunteer High team Mr. B. helped coach won over two Dobyns-Bennett High teams.
Then, about two years ago, I did a column about baldness, something with which he and I have had more than a passing acquaintance. I wrote about goofing up a genetics homework exercise on the offspring of a long-tailed, short-haired mouse and a short-tailed, long-haired mouse.
A few days later, a hand-written letter was hand-delivered to the newspaper office addressed “To Rick Wagner From Mr. B.” He answered my questions about inherited baldness being a “crap shoot,” as I put it in the column, and prompted a followup column.
He also recounted how he used to have a “bald” or hairless mouse that used to perch on his shoulder in class. I never saw that mouse, but if told any of my teachers over the years had one, I’d have guessed it was Mr. B.
That letter was my last communication with him.
HIS LIFE IN A NUTSHELL
I didn’t get to make it to his receiving of friends or funeral, but I learned from his obituary he was from Carter County and graduated at the top of his class in 1962 at Cloudland High School.
He also served in the Army as a medic in the Vietnam War. He received the Purple Heart for being wounded from an explosive device. He also earned associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
His survivors included a son, daughter and sister, while another son, another sister and his wife, Phyllis, left this world before he did.
He was a father, husband, brother, teacher, Army medic and Santa’s helper with an advanced education degree all in one lifetime, not to mention guitar repairman and keeper of a hairless mouse.
“Teacher, Friend, Mentor. Brilliant man of biology, happy, energetic, authentic, caring, perceptive and much more,” Class of 1982 classmate Jeff Brummitt wrote on Facebook of Mr. B. after attending our former teacher’s burial with military honors. “He taught me the basics of genetics and so much more.”
My wife and another high school classmate, Vicki Seal, and I had his class together. We are divorcing but still communicate.
She became a teacher and said he was one of the reasons. We went to a 2010 retirement reception for him at the same church, Oak Grove Baptist, where his funeral was held.
“We were always his students but now his friends. He made such a huge impact,” Vicki recently reminded me in a Facebook message. “Fly high with the angels, Mr. B.”
Life is fleeting at best. Nothing lasts forever: old hippie guitars (although I still have it and may turn it into a clock or something), a full head of hair, marriage or life itself all slip away. Memories remain and are passed along to the future, at least for a while, like genetics passes along traits into future generations.
(Sorry, future generations of mine. Some of you guys may go bald. However, could I interest you in a hippie guitar/clock combo, a custom creation from Mr. B. and me?)
Maybe someday I’ll make it back to Roan Mountain, lie on the ground and listen to the silence, except for an occasional plane or retired biology teacher’s spirit passing over.
Vicki also recalled that she heard Mr. B. once say if you lived 80 years you only got to see the seasons change 80 times. He died about a month ago, Aug. 7, at age 75, but his impact on 40 years of biology students left to enjoy those seasons totals 80 years many, many times over.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. B. and all teachers who touched our lives.
Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (423) 392-1381.