By Dennis Danziger
Every August, days before the fall semester begins, I arrive at Palisades High to prepare for the new school year. I study the quad, which is green, well-manicured and devoid of students.
Two days after Labor Day that quad will be packed with 2,700 students who are brimming with hopes, anxiety, expectations. On that first day of school I always stand off to the side and wonder what dramas will play out in the coming year? Who’ll drop out? Come out? Move out? Who’ll end up rehab? Who’ll be accepted to Berkeley or Yale?
Twenty-seven hundred teenagers from 100+ zip codes. Things happen. As I study then on the first day of class, I am certain of only one thing – I have no clue what will happen to anyone. In 2005 I taught a class of 36 PaliHi tenth-grade honors English students. The best class I’ll ever teach. No matter how badly things went in my other classes, no matter what sadness might have befallen me off campus, every day I looked forward to seeing these three dozen superstars – visual artists, scholar-jocks, stars of drama department, carriers off multiple AP classes.
Some aspired to be writers. Alex, who read the complete works of Mario Puzo during class time, studied screenwriting on the side. Diana wrote for the school newspaper. Adriana and Hannah, whose heads were always buried in novels that they wouldn’t be assigned until their junior year of college or beyond, wrote essays with the insights of women twice their age.
And then there was Dillon: Our class poet. He sat on the last row, pen in hand, always writing and sketching.
On the first day of class I tossed out a prompt to see what was rolling around these kids’ minds.
When I asked who’d like to read what they wrote, paralysis set in.
Then Dillon, this kid with a surfer’s tan and a permanent smile, raised his hand.
“I’ll read,” he said
“Thanks.” I am always grateful for the first volunteer; the brave one who breaks the ice.
“Mind if I stand?” he asked.
“Mind if I read from your podium?” Dillon asked.
“Fourteen years, 2,000-plus students and no one ever had the guts to ask to read from my podium.
Knock yourself out,” I said.
I couldn’t believe there was a 16-year-old on the planet that had this kind of confidence. Wasn’t sure if I should be happy to have landed such a student or to be wary that he was about to take over my class.
He positioned himself at my podium as if public speaking was his profession.
As he read, I thought, “He plagiarized this. No 16-year-old is that good.”
Then I realized I had just given the assignment.
He actually was that good.
He finished reading. His classmates applauded. That almost never happens. “Who else wants to read?” I asked.
It was as If the main attraction performed first and now I was searching for the opening act.
A few brave writers followed.
For 40 weeks I was blessed with teaching the most wonderfully gifted, confident, intellectually curious, cool, fun, sweet, talented students who ever congregated in my classroom at one time.
And of those, six shyly admitted that one day they’d like to be writers. I believed that all might succeed. But if I had to put my money on just one, I would have chosen Dillon.
At 16, he had already discovered his writer’s voice, had been bitten by a love of language, by the need and the obsession to write. I loved him for determination, for his yearning to make his mark on the world with is words. The past July, 1,000 mourners, mostly teenagers, buried Richard Dillon Henry at Forest Lawn Mortuary in Los Angeles. A man who has worked there for years said that only two funerals at this site were ever so well attended: for Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC and for the journalist Daniel Pearl. My students and I were devastated. Speechless. Distraught. We still are.
When I return to Palisades High this August and I look across the quad and wonder what will become of these young men and women during the course of the year, I’ll miss that kid who stood at my podium, who’d be a senior this fall; who’d be applying to colleges and playing soccer and surfing and hitting the books to maintain his rank in the top 4 percent of his graduating class. I’ll miss his joyful presence this year and for years to come.
And I’ll miss the words that Dillon Henry would have written for us had he lived a longer life.
Dennis Danziger teaches English at Palisades Charter High School