The text message came from my wife on Tuesday.

“It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week,” she wrote. “Who do you remember most – Brother B?”

She meant Brother Bede, who taught me algebra way back in 1968-69 and, as coincidence would have it, died a year ago Wednesday at the age of 95.

And yes, dear, for reasons that have little to do with integers and a lot to do with integrity, he is to this day unforgettable.

You never know which teachers are going to stick with you as the months turn into years and the years turn into decades.

The young, too-cool-for-school teachers often fade as we reach and then surpass their age when we knew them. Yes, they were a blast to be around – but what did they actually teach us?

The taskmasters, if we remember them at all, remind us now of a bad boss. Checking every box and following every instruction to the letter might get you an A – but what did you learn about the balance between getting the job done and cultivating relationships with those around you?

Then there were teachers like Brother Bede.

He arrived at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, a year or two before I enrolled as a freshman in 1968. Standing there at the head of the class that first day in his black cassock, he made an indelible first impression the moment he opened his mouth.

He had a slight speech impediment, compounded by the heavy Boston accent acquired from his childhood days – back when he went by Richard Joseph Benn – in Somerville.

“Brother Bede” thus sounded more like “Bwuddah Bede.” And as he introduced himself and talked about the year ahead, many of us strained to understand exactly what he was saying.

But we got used to it – along with his many other disarming attacks on the language.

“Square root of” became “scootz-ah.” As in “Ten, multiplied by scootz-ah 36, is 60. Got that, gentlemen?”

“Smash” became “smatch.” As in, “Keep up that talking, Billy Nemitz, and I’m going to smatch you!” (As if the man would ever hurt a fly.)

You’d think, in this sea of adolescent insecurity, that Brother Bede would have been an easy target for those who saw nothing wrong with snagging a cheap laugh at his expense. And, truth be told, some kids did.

Yet the mimicry never fazed him as he walked through each day with that eternal, other-worldly smile on his face.

It seemed he knew every kid in the school – and there were close to 1,000 of us – by first name.

When he said hello, it wasn’t just a robotic greeting for the masses with whom he crossed paths each day. Rather, you walked away with the buoyant thought, “Wow, he seemed really happy to see me.”

His motivational speeches were short and not always sweet, but how could you not laugh out loud?

“Don’t shake your head ‘no’ like that,” he’d advise a stumped student midway through class. “We can all hear the rocks rolling around up there!”

Me? I’ve never been a numbers person. As my peers sprinted through algebra, breezed through trigonometry and analysis and set their sights on calculus, I struggled from the get-go – and Brother Bede knew it.

“Let’s try it again,” he’d say patiently after class, as we perused my botched homework assignment. “See here, ‘x,’ which in this case is 12, minus ‘y’ which is scootz-ah-4, which is 2, times ‘c’ cubed, which is 9 times 9 times 9, which is 729 … so that gives us 7,290. OK now?”

“Holy (expletive),” I’d silently marvel. “How did he do that so fast?”

Brother Bede had great respect for the rules of mathematics, although that didn’t stop him from editorializing.

Take what was then called the “new math,” promulgated in the early 1960s by the School Mathematics Study Group, or SMSG. Also known, at least to Brother Bede, as “Some Math, Some Garbage.”

He was, like so many great teachers, a perpetually open book.

And then, as we began our junior year, he was gone. Not to another assignment at another Xaverian Brothers-run high school, but to the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Indian Reservation in the far reaches of South Dakota.

He would teach there, both at the small St. Francis Mission school and later at Sinte Gleska University, for the next 23 years.

A world away from the comfortable confines of suburban Boston, it was nonetheless a fitting destination.

The Xaverian Brothers, or Congregation of St. Francis Xavier, were founded in 1839 in Belgium by Theodore James Ryken, who previously had spent three years traveling in the United States and resolved to create a mission here to educate Indian children.

But when he finally returned in 1854, Ryken instead focused the budding order’s efforts on Catholic schools, largely populated by immigrant children, in such places as New Orleans and Baltimore.

Now, more than a century later, here was Brother Bede devoting what would be a third of his adult life to Native Americans who came to cherish him as much as we had. He became their friend, their teacher, their spiritual adviser and, for many a child born in those years, their godfather.

I got the news via a letter to alumni last May. After returning to Massachusetts in 1993, Bede had gone on to teach for another 16 years at Malden Catholic High School – where he’d previously taught a half-century ago. Finally in 2009, just shy of 90, he retired to the Xaverian Brothers Residence in Danvers.

At the time of his death just over a year ago, he was the oldest surviving member of the Xaverian Brothers congregation. And, as the tributes poured in, perhaps the most beloved.

“Brother Bede brought passion, dedication and energy to every aspect of the Malden Catholic community,” wrote U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, class of 1964. “He was an inspiration to us all.”

Gene Trainor, who worked alongside Brother Bede at my high school and went on to become a Roman Catholic priest, would second that.

“He was no Uriah Heep!” wrote Gene in an email last week, referring to the Dickens character notorious for his false humility.

Recalling the day the entire student body, and then the entire faculty, bade Brother Bede farewell with a loud, sustained and heartfelt standing ovation, Gene wrote: “I was so struck by how this simple-living man was profoundly loved. And he never had to work at it. … His humility became him.”

More than once over the past year, I’ve watched and rewatched a short video produced by the Xaverian Brothers four years ago.

In it, Brother Bede, unchanged but for the gray-white hair, spoke with quiet reverence about his faith, his surprise at having lived so long and his daily prayer that when the time came, he’d be ready.

“I always tell people the good ones die young, you know,” he quipped with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But it’s good, yeah.”

Indeed it was good. As he is impossible to forget.

So, better late than never, Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, Brother Bede.

And thanks for not smatching me.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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