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  • Writer's pictureJenny Waldo

Foto Friday: Tribute to Neal Tonken

I can’t tell you what staying in public school would have been like for me.  All of my friends growing up were in public school and they all went on to go to college and lead productive, successful lives.  But after a difficult freshman year, my parents thought I would benefit from a smaller setting and put me through the admission process to private school.  In the DC area, private school is a huge thing because most of the public schools in the District are pretty terrible.  (I was across the border in a rich suburb of Maryland with some of the best public schools in the nation.)  And that’s how I found myself attending Sidwell Friends School – the same year that Chelsea Clinton started there.  It’s a school known for its Presidential kids (and kids from senators, congressmen, and other DC elites), a school known for its Quakerism, and one of the few private schools in the DC area that is co-ed.

Like any place, Sidwell had its problems.  And although I did benefit greatly from my education there, I don’t think I benefited from the school in the way my parents’ expected.  But by the time I graduated in 1995, there were things I took with me that only Sidwell could have provided.  And they ended up happening in the same year.

The first was falling in love with Luke Jensen the summer before Senior year.  The second was taking Neal Tonken’s “Fall and the Fallen” Senior English class that fall.

I don’t know if I’m going to properly explain all of this or if this is simply a construct of a mind searching for meaning, but so many things fell into place in that period of time and stayed with me until…pretty much now.

I didn’t know then that Luke and I would marry 10 years later, have 2 kids, and then divorce half-way to what would have been our 17th anniversary.  All I knew was that he was everything that I wanted and needed.  And somehow, someway, we made it work.  I know I wasn’t easy, but Luke gave me a home, a center, a stability that didn’t exist in my life.

Mr. Tonken did the same thing for my writing.  He instilled in me a love and excitement of literature that had always been there, but like most things in my life, was a mess.  He challenged me to fix my writing, and gave me tips to sort through the nonsense and get to the meat of my point.  I knew he wasn’t an easy person in his own life.  It was obvious.  There were whispers that he wasn’t allowed to teach Freshmen anymore because he threw chalk and yelled and scared them.  He smoked cigarettes on the porch of the school, in front of everyone, in between classes.  He drank quadruple espressos after quadruple espressos before it was a hipster thing.  Whatever other demons he had outside of school, there were clearly some on display while there.

But not being easy, for me, was part of the challenge.  I had a father at home who was demanding and challenging and not easy, someone who I always felt I was disappointing in some way.  Mr. Tonken became my surrogate father figure in my mind.  I needed to prove myself to Mr. Tonken as a way to prove myself to my father, and to myself.   I wanted him to like me.  I wanted to impress him.  I wanted to work hard.  I’m not saying this to discredit any of the other teachers I had, many of whom I admired and learned from and liked very much.  But Mr. Tonken’s brand of rebellious teaching was so exciting and inspiring for me.  I still struggled.  I didn’t master it.  But I remember during finals, he came into a room where I was taking an exam for a different subject and I looked at him with questioning eyes, wondering if I had done well on his final, and he nodded and gave me a thumbs up.  It was the best feeling in the world.

During that time, I took the featured photo of Mr. Tonken, as well as the photo of Luke below.  I went everywhere with my camera and developed my own photos.  Those photos captured a feeling for me of that very time when I was coming alive.  Both, in different ways, are intimate.  I think you can see the connection between photographer and subject.  Both are expressions of my love, too.  They have always been a pair.

I became friends with Mr. Tonken’s wife Jancy, the gentlest woman on the planet, and visited her for years after I graduated.  She loved that Luke and I had found each other and stayed together.  I didn’t stay in touch with Mr. Tonken.  But I carried his spirit with me as I pursued an English major at Oberlin College and then a Masters of Fine Art in Film Production at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

The other week, I received an email from Sidwell saying that Mr. Tonken was terminally ill and I posted the photo of him and sent a tribute.  Sidwell then posted the photo on its own Facebook page in tribute to Mr. Tonken and credited me.  It was a strange moment because the photo is incredibly personal to me.  A moment in a profound turning point in my life.  And yet, in hearing people’s thoughts about the photo, and their appreciation of it, I hear their own appreciation for both the man pictured and the way that I captured him.  And in some way, I feel I succeeded at something that affected people around me, even people I don’t know.

This somewhat conflicted sense of personal and public continued as tribute after tribute poured in for Mr. Tonken, and all of them said the same thing: He challenged these students, fixed their writing, inspired them to be better.  For a minute, I felt somewhat less-than, knowing that I had just been one of many.  That maybe I didn’t impress and and I didn’t succeed.  But then I realized that the fact that Mr. Tonken was able to generate this feeling in so many students over his 29 years of teaching and that each one felt it was personal and often a turning point in their own lives, didn’t make my experience any less, it made Mr. Tonken even more.  He had an incredible gift, and he shared it in ways that went beyond the written pages we were studying, right down to our very core.  He was dynamic and unique, and not easy.  So I’m sure there are people who remember him very differently.  But I can only tell my story.

I’ve been wondering what it would be like to be experiencing all of this still married to Luke.  Like there would have been some circular theme that would give everything more depth and meaning.  The irony is that Luke’s new wife’s father was actually old law school buddies with Mr. Tonken.  So through Luke, I was actually able to learn more about what was going on.

Life is messy.  And there is no circular theme or overarching meaning.  The only meaning comes from how I feel and who I am right now.  The only meaning comes from a moment in time, captured on film.  The only meaning comes from what I experienced and how those experiences changed me and influenced my journey so far.  Mr. Tonken remained a fixture in my past.  I didn’t maintain a present with him.  So I will never really know what he thought.  But I hope he’d nod and give me a thumbs up.

This picture always reminded me of a Rolling Stone cover

Luke.  This picture always reminded me of a Rolling Stone cover

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