Final lesson from a dying high school writing teacher: Don’t delay expressing gratitude.

My last conversation with George Lukacs ended with heartfelt but belated words: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

During the 1980s, Mr. Lukacs, my high school English teacher, significantly influenced my career as a writer.

Upon discovering his terminal condition in late March via social media, I realized I had never expressed my gratitude for the profound impact he had on me over the last 30-plus years since graduation. I had never properly thanked him.

I quickly reached out to him, and he graciously made time for a call. In our recent chat, we fondly recalled the past, shared laughs, compressed decades into minutes, and I finally conveyed the gratitude I should have long ago. This conversation, fittingly, concluded with a final lesson.

The Importance of Appreciating Those Who Helped Us

Initially, I didn’t plan on sharing this personal experience. However, it lingered in my thoughts, prompting me to believe that Mr. Lukacs’ lesson should be passed on.

The lesson is straightforward: Don’t delay expressing gratitude to those who have positively impacted your life. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge the teachers, mentors, or counselors who guided you forward, enhancing your life in ways you couldn’t have achieved alone.

How a Teacher Changed My Perspective

Upon entering Mr. Lukacs’ English class in high school, I already possessed the foundational knowledge of good writing. Yet, it often felt like my creativity was constrained by rigid rules.

Mr. Lukacs liberated my imagination. He encouraged young writers to embrace their unique style, fostering creativity by challenging conventional writing norms.

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He humorously awarded a “Golden Shovel” to students who skillfully navigated their way through essays with creativity and flair.

While other teachers grounded us in reality, Mr. Lukacs allowed us to soar, recognizing our readiness for innovation.

Reflecting on High School Memories

My recollection of him in high school paints a picture of a charismatic and gentle soul. His distinctive laughter resounded through the halls, akin to the sound of a dolphin being inadvertently prodded.

As is customary for high school students, I moved forward from the educators who shaped my thinking. I embraced adulthood, pursued a career, started a family, and lived the fulfilling life all good teachers aspire for their students. And as life unfolds, we tend to overlook the past.

A Poignant Announcement Evoking Emotions

In March, a friend shared a poignant video shared by Mr. Lukacs, titled “A Farewell Wave,” leaving a profound impact.

Watching the video, I witnessed the man I once knew, now gray-haired and bespectacled, acknowledging the beginning of his final chapter. His heartfelt words resonated deeply.

A screenshot of George Lukacs, the author's high school English teacher, from a video he made announcing that he's dying.

Initially diagnosed with liposarcoma in 2001, his resilience during treatments was fueled by the unwavering support of his current and former students.

Expressing his gratitude in the video, he credited his interaction with students for filling his life with joy, appreciating their impact on his life and theirs. His parting message resonated with heartfelt emotions.

Seizing the Opportunity to Express Gratitude

Through a former teacher, I acquired Mr. Lukacs’ contact information. A heartfelt email expressing my indebtedness for instilling a love for writing and emphasizing that individuality trumps conformity in the world of writing paved the way for a meaningful conversation.

Our dialogue allowed me to convey the depth of my gratitude for his influence on my writing journey. Seeking his permission before sharing this narrative, he humorously responded, “I’m frankly surprised to be still here,” adding a playful yet encouraging sign-off.

Learning from a Final Lesson

I hope Mr. Lukacs reads this tribute as he embarks on his next journey. More importantly, I wish for readers to reflect on their past and acknowledge those unsung heroes who shaped their lives.

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A Farewell, a Poem, and Profound Gratitude

In his farewell video, Mr. Lukacs quoted Walt Whitman’s profound words: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

Citing Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” I expressed both appreciation and exasperation towards him for introducing me to a 52-part poem.

USA TODAY opinion columnist Rex Huppke.

Yet, the essence of his message, “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,” showcases his enduring impact. So, onward, Mr. Lukacs, and thank you for the final lesson—poetry included, albeit reluctantly.

With gratitude,

— Rex

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