A few days ago news came to me and my high school classmates that one of our teachers had passed. Yes, he was in his eighties. Yes, many of us had not seen him in all these years. Some of us had lunch with him a couple of years ago. It is not the recent interactions that are filling so many of us with unexpected, deeply felt grief.
Fr. Samuel Falbo (Fr. Sam) was our chemistry teacher. Why would so many of us feel losing a chemistry teacher so intensely? He taught with passion, enthusiasm, and creativity. He taught us how to remember the elements in the periodic table through mnemonics. Neon, imagine ten toes lite up like a neon sign.
For me, he was the first feminist I had ever met. I had an intrinsic ability to understand chemistry. I didn’t have to think or calculate. I just knew. Fr. Sam didn’t let me slip into the shadows. To not answer when I knew the answer so quickly. He took me on field trips for the top science students, all boys except for me. He mocked my fear of looking smart, but in the most gentle, affirming way. When Dow Chemical refused me a scholarship because “there was no place in the field of chemistry for women”. He shrugged it off and said, “do it anyway.”
Well, I didn’t become a chemist. As intrinsically simple as it was for me I had always had two passions one for writing and one for being a Clinical Psychology, a therapist.
When I was confronted with challenges to excel or to assert myself always there was that funny crooked smile and dancing dark eyes teasing me and urging me to do what I knew I could.
For many of us, one of the best experiences of those high school years was not the chemistry class itself, it was Fr. Sam affirming who we were and reminding us to enjoy our lives and our abilities.
For his recent sixtieth anniversary of the priesthood, we sent congratulatory messages. He sent back a personal note that was so true to who he was as a teacher and a human being. He celebrated my accomplishments. His words were full of admiration, support, and echoed that love of teaching, of connecting with his students and for bringing out our very best.
The fact that so many are struggling with this loss speaks to who he was. He always was somewhere in the background encouraging us and we knew it.
During this time of isolation and losses of so many things we took for granted a few months ago, this seems a particularly harsh blow.
We can’t gather together and embrace each other. We can’t sit together and reminisce. We will have zoom meetings, but still….We will always miss you Fr. Sam.