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Wednesday in the Park with Riptide

I often worry about what kind of legacy, if any, I'll leave behind — a chance meeting with a former student gave me a reason not to

By Dennis Danziger
Closeup shot of a yellow lab looking toward the camera. Next Avenue
Riptide  |  Credit: Molly Barela

Some mornings I think, for the thousandth time, that I will leave no legacy, no footprint, nothing that says, "I was here and what I did mattered."

I'm a retired high school teacher.

The other morning, although it was fall here in L.A., it was 81 degrees as I leashed Riptide, my Labrador Retriever-mix puppy, and drove to the dog park.

Some mornings I think, for the thousandth time, that I will leave no legacy, no footprint, nothing that says, "I was here and what I did mattered."

En route, Rip lunged at the rear window, barked madly at dogs, UPS trucks, skateboarders and squirrels.

My dog park friends (many of whom seem to have earned a Ph.D. in dog behavior) assure me that Labradors mature into obedient adults at two, but the other day at the vet, as two techs held Riptide in a headlock for Dr. Moss to check his ears, I asked if what my dog park friends tell me was true.

Dr. Moss smiled.

"Will he mature by three?" I tried.

He smiled again.

"Five? Promise me he'll slow down by seven. I'll be 75, then."

Another smile.

It was noon, with no cloud cover, when Riptide and I entered the park. The lone shady spot had already been claimed by a professional dog walker and her five exhausted pups.

I pleaded with Rip to chase Liberty, the brown and white pointer, to wrestle Eddie, the howling husky, or to follow Banjo, the scrappy Chihuahua-doodle running sprints.

Instead he moseyed over to the water fountain. I cranked the handle to give him a drink, but even slurping seemed of no interest.

I looked into his almond eyes. "Really? You're done?"

Scout, the German shepherd, hurdled him on his way to fetching a ball. Rip ignored him and belly flopped onto the artificial turf.

"Home?" I asked.

Riptide leapt, paws pushing against my shoulders.

As we headed toward the gate, a woman wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and sunglasses that covered not only her eyes but much of her forehead, approached.

A man and his yellow lab together in a park. Next Avenue
Writer Dennis Danziger and Riptide  |  Credit: Molly Barela

"Excuse me," she said. "Were you ever an old teacher at Palisades High?"

When I taught English at Palisades High, I was middle aged. Now, I'm old. But I didn't say that. I just nodded.

"See that woman?" she asked, pointing across the park at a woman in her early 40s wearing a Dodgers baseball cap. "She thinks you were her teacher."

Riptide and I walked over to the woman to say hello. She smiled shyly. "I don't know if you remember me, but I saw you here before, but I wasn't sure it was you, so I didn't say anything."

"I'm Dennis Danziger," I said.

"I was your student. I'm Jackie Nunez."

Suddenly I saw the young girl she had been. "Jackie, I absolutely remember you."

"I graduated in 1999," she said.

Twenty-four years evaporated as I recalled the windowless bungalow at the back of campus where administration stuck all the new teachers. "You were in one of my ninth grade classes," I said.


"Exactly," she grinned. "And I'll never forget this one day in your class. I think about it a lot."

"Because?" I asked. Even Riptide was suddenly attentive.

"That day changed me," she said. "I was staring into space, being a rebellious 14-year-old, and you came over and asked what I was doing. I said 'nothing'. And you told me it was impossible to do nothing."

"I remember that," I said.

"Do you remember I argued with you? I told you I was doing nothing, and you said, 'Jackie, you can't do nothing. Even when you're dead, you're decomposing. You're doing something.'"

Riptide sat perfectly still, listening, as Jackie kept talking.

"I fought back. I told you I was doing nothing, and you said if I wrote a short essay explaining how I could do nothing, you'd give me extra credit. You told me that if you're alive, you're always doing something — daydreaming or breathing or tapping your pencil or thinking about lunch. And you said it again. 'It's impossible to do nothing.' And when you walked away, I started writing."

"You helped me understand that every moment matters."

Although I could see the 14-year-old and could almost smell the air — that combination of chalk dust and Lysol — I could not remember what happened. "And?" I asked.

"I wrote the essay, you gave me extra credit, which raised my grade to a B. But what I remember most was that you didn't get mad at me for not doing the assignment or for being disrespectful. And you helped me understand that every moment matters."

"I'm glad," I said. What do you do now?"

She told me she works as a hair stylist and make-up artist and teaches those crafts to young people trying to enter the profession.

"So, you're a teacher," I said.

"Well, I never think of myself as a teacher. But yeah, I guess," she said, and her smile widened.

We said farewell, and Riptide and I headed out of the park. As we walked, I realized that although I have no tangible, physical evidence that what transpired in the 20,000-plus, 54-minute classes that composed my career, some conversations, some assignments, some moments still resonate inside at least with some of my 5,000 former students. Maybe, I thought, just maybe I've left a legacy.

Riptide bucked and howled at a cocky crow in our path. I yanked him close and thought, "Wow, I'm feeling good," even knowing that I'll continue to wonder about my legacy.

Dennis Danziger
Dennis Danziger is the co-founder of the non-profit POPS the Club. This essay is from his memoir-in-progress, Downwardly Mobile: How to Lead a Rich Life While Going Broke, A Teacher's Story.
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