My favorite memory of Mr. Phil happened at my elementary school in the third grade. My friend and I were on the playground, doing whatever third-graders do, when we approached a deep hole in the middle of the ground of sand. We both grabbed ahold of each other as we inched closer and looked inside to see two tiny red eyes that glowed just like the eyes of monsters in the movies always had. My friend and I screamed as we jumped up and down in both horror and excitement. What kind of animal was it? Was it poisonous? Would it charge at us now that we had made eye contact? We ran to the only person who would know what to do, and that person was Mr. Phil.
Mr. Phil, in true fashion, stared at the hole for about two seconds. He then covered the hole with sand. He patted the new hill with one foot and walked away.
To describe Mr. Phil accurately through writing would be a job too big for even Shakespeare. He was always grumpy in the happiest way possible, always swore, and always drove a big white Jeep. He loved pigs and taking pictures and blasting country music. He was so much more than another worker at my elementary school; he was a positive influence on our community. Not many people would consider working after retirement, but Mr. Phil was generous enough to give the rest of his life to my elementary school. While he wasn’t the youngest employee there, he did everything he could to be helpful. He helped teachers with technical issues, took pictures for the yearbook, and made lunchtime fun by dragging heavy speakers to the cafeteria and blasting music. Many people could have breezed through these tasks without a second thought, but the most important thing to know about Mr. Phil was that he was always a friend. It didn’t matter if you were a principal, custodian, teacher or even a child under the age of 10, you could always count on Mr. Phil to treat you with kindness. Even when he was in a wheelchair and could no longer work, Mr. Phil was always there, ready to help and ready to give you a smile and a hug.
When I got the call only a few weeks ago that Mr. Phil was gone, I was at a strange and pivotal moment in my life. I had just turned 21, was mentally preparing for my last year of college, and was in the middle of packing to live in La Jolla for the last time. A chapter of my life was closing, and I could feel it. That feeling was only amplified by the funeral services. Pictures at the front of the room showed a much younger Mr. Phil throughout many stages of his life, including ones I had never known before. The room, located right across the street from my elementary school, was overflowing.
Even more shocking was the people in attendance. One by one, employees from my elementary school trickled in. People I saw every day during my most memorable moments of childhood were standing right in front of me looking slightly older yet exactly the same. Mr. Phil’s granddaughter and I stared in shock as we tried to remember the names of all these familiar faces. After leaving the services, I realized I would probably never see those people again. As we drove past my elementary school, I knew there was no longer a reason to go back.
It is often said that we are “different people” at each stage of our lives. As someone who has struggled with college and moving away from friends and family, I have often failed to recognize the person I am now. I have constantly had to juggle my life in a city I do not enjoy. My first two years of college were spent wishing I was somewhere else. It wasn’t until my third year that I changed my major, got a job I enjoyed, and started writing for this newspaper. I started new friendships with honest and kind people, and I started to ignore my dislike of San Diego. Still, a part of me yearned for simpler days of football games, harvest festivals, and no student loan debt.
Mr. Phil’s journeys through life reminded me that just because the childhood chapter of my life is closed does not mean that my memories are any less beautiful or real. In college, it is often difficult to close those doors and move on, but Mr. Phil’s love of life has inspired me to officially close that door and make new memories I can look back on with pride. By doing so, I will be able to progress and grow as a person and (finally) become an adult.
I can only hope that the adult I am growing to be will be even a quarter as kind as Mr. Phil, and I am grateful to have learned so much from meeting him. We will all continue to face scary monsters with beady red eyes in college and beyond. I hope to stare right back at them and remember that they aren’t as big and scary as I make them out to be. I will close those chapters and have the courage to move forward, and I hope you will too.