St. Louis, Missouri, sits just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Those great rivers, and the fertile bottom lands their floodwaters nurtured, have drawn people to this location for millennia.
The largest, manmade, ancient earthen mound north of Mexico lays only a few kilometers to the east of the city. It tells of aboriginal people’s long presence there.
Layered over First Nation names on local geographic features, the settlement names left by the European colonizers recount the story of the region.
The formal ceremony between Spain, France and the United States marking the cession of the Louisiana territory took place in St. Louis in March of 1804.
Napoleon’s vanquished dream of a North American empire gave the fledgling United States a territory that stretched from the mouth of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico north to Saskatchewan.
The Louisiana Purchase would eventually comprise 13 future states.
Waves of immigrants from lands such as Bohemia, Germany, Ireland and Italy, as well as from the Civil War-ravaged states to the south, would flood St. Louis over the next century.
New residents all brought with them their stories and patterns of speech and intonation to tell them with. These would blend into a unique local accent.
The local pronunciation of the name John, for example, sounds like Jan to an outsider’s ear.
Luckily the couple my wife Eva and I visited the week before last were John and Jan. Whatever we said sounded right.
For John, a teacher, and Jan, a librarian, the story provides a key reference point for their lives. The belief everyone has a story to tell, a life worth recounting, insights to be shared puts a value on all lives.
John taught English to Grade 6, 7 and 8 students at St. Ann Catholic Elementary School in Normandy, a near suburb of St. Louis, a quarter hour expressway drive from their central St. Louis home. His nearly 39 years of teaching alone would not have made him a master teacher. Giving voice to young people’s dreams through the creativity he inspired and the skills he imparted did, though.
Genuinely enthused, John showed us the poetry his young charges wrote in response to the 14-day blog of two canoeists circumnavigating St. Louis.
Having the unflagging ability to see his student’s potential and a wide, imaginative range of tools and techniques with which to unlock their creativity produced great results.
His students, young as they were, produced strong and evocative pieces.
This was only part, however, of a larger project.
John’s unselfish striving to assist students in naming their own futures, to becoming subjects of their own stories and not just the footnotes in others’ biographies move him one from the master teacher to the master human-being category.
Last weekend, we heard a stroke had crippled our teacher friend. A day later, another call from Jan told us he had died.
This completely unexpected passing reminds me just how fragile this life is, and how suddenly life’s moorings can be loosened.
John’s story continues, as does all of ours, in the lives he has touched.
When John joined the two paddlers on Pelican Island just above the point where the mighty rivers join on the last day of the St. Louis Circumnavigation Project, he wrote his own poem to go along with those of his students.
So much depends
a lone canoeist
on the river
receiving its grace
John C Wiedmann, 1949-2011
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.