That day will forever be etched in my memory. Somewhere between my first kiss and learning the truth about Santa Claus. Seriously, it was that memorable. I even thought there should have been a federal holiday declared, but that never came to be.
It was January, 1983. I was in 7th grade and school had just resumed after Christmas break. Not the greatest time of the year and I was stuck for another semester in Mr. Wapstein’s English Fundamentals class. He was so strict and stoic he made the Mt. Rushmore guys look like stand-up comics.
See, the thing with Mr. Wapstein was - none of us had ever actually seen him smile. Not even once. Not even accidentally. We began to wonder if maybe he couldn’t smile. Maybe it was a rare muscular disorder. Or maybe he came from a country where smiling was illegal. Granted, if my last name was Wapstein, I probably wouldn’t smile much either, but he truly never had. Not even on the first day of school when all the teachers are still happy.
To make matters worse, he had a dark, fuzzy moustache that reached all the way around his top lip like an unkempt squirrel tail, which made him look like he was perpetually frowning. No offense to squirrel tails, but it just isn’t a good look for your face.
It was another mind-numbing day of diagramming sentences when the classroom door creaked open. Any distraction is gold at a moment like that, so all eyes were on the office assistant as she walked up to his desk.
“This just came for you, certified.” She handed him an envelope and, to our disappointment, quickly left the room.
Mr. Wapstein looked the item over with his usual disapproving scowl. “Just a moment,” he said, sitting down.
He carefully slid his finger under the flap and pulled out what looked like some official papers. I sat on the front row and had a good vantage point, but couldn’t tell what it actually was. This is where it got weird.
As he was reading, something strange was happening to his face. Was he sick? Was he going to throw up? When you’re 12, throwing up is always funny unless it’s your teacher and you’re sitting on the front row. Then it’s fodder for future therapy sessions. I just couldn’t figure it out and then I realized with astonishment….he was starting to smile.
As I was trying to grasp what was happening, weird turned to bizarre. He started…laughing. LAUGHING. It started as a chuckle, or maybe a chortle, and slowly progressed all the way to a genuine guffaw. He laughed so hard that he had to hold his head in his hands. For a moment, I was truly frightened. Had we slipped into an alternate universe? I looked outside for any clues that might indicate a change in the space-time continuum, but didn’t notice anything.
We all just sat there, mesmerized and motionless, like when you’re watching one of those health films that no one wants to talk about afterward. I shifted uneasily in my parachute pants. What should we do? Call 911? Finally, Mr. Wapstein looked up from what was obviously the funniest document in the known world. There were tears in his eyes, a smile still on his face and, maybe I’m crazy, but he actually looked younger.
The miracle continued when he gave us free time for the rest of the class. I’m sure angels were singing. And although one doesn’t question these things, our curiosity burned to know what he was reading. But to this day, no one ever found out.
I’ll never know what was in that letter, but it changed that man’s life. And his laughter changed ours. He was a softer man after that and although still not one to smile freely, I would catch a grin now and then and even a wink once in a while.
I had heard the scripture that says laughter does good like a medicine, but had never seen it demonstrated in such a real way. It made me take a second look at some of those Sunday School scriptures I quoted without really thinking about them. These things had power beyond what I ever imagined. It also made me thankful for Mr. Wapstein. What he taught me that year was so much more than English Fundamentals - it was Eternal Fundamentals.
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