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Requiescat in Potchynok

Posted on 2008.04.08 at 00:02
Current Mood: calmcalm
Current Music: Get Out of Denver - Bob Seger
Word reached us today (courtesy of my brother F) of the death of Robert Potchynok (pronounced potch’ nock). He was a teacher at my high school in Detroit for many years. Though he was generally a social studies teacher, I did have him as my religion teacher in my senior year. If you’re wondering “Which religion?” I should mention that I attended an all-boys Catholic school.

Mr. Potchynok was a very smart man and a good teacher, generally speaking. He was also a very memorable character, which is why I’m taking the time to write about him today. There are two stories I want to relate about him to illustrate this:

Mr. Potchynok was popularly regarded as a Communist during my time in school. This perception apparently reached his ears, and he addressed it one day during class. “I am not a Communist,” he told us in his penetrating baritone voice, “I regard it as an unworkable, failed system.” A smile then curled across his lips as he added, “But I am a Socialist. We’ll be going over the difference between the two later in the semester.” Yes, social studies was clearly a field of great interest and passion for Mr. P.

The other story is a bit more personal and requires some setup. I was a sophomore and my older brother was a senior. He and I were having a discussion with our dad one night in which my dad brought up the difference between the concepts of freedom and license, i.e., freedom does not mean you can do whatever you wish to anyone or anything; it carries with it an implied societal contract, whereas license carries no such restrictions. I found the discussion stimulating and enlightening.

As chance would have it, not a week later I was in Mr. Potchynok’s Humanities class. He began by asking the class if America was a free country. Well of course it was, we answered. “Oh really,” Mr. Potchynok replied, “So if you want something that belongs to your neighbor, you are free to take it; if you wish to kill someone, you are free to do so?”

My hand immediately shot up. This was precisely what we’d been talking about at home the week before! I explained to the class the distinction between freedom and license, feeling quite proud of myself. When I was finished, Mr. Potchynok stared at me with a grim smile and said quietly, “I see you’ve been talking to the students from the other section!” Before I could utter a word of denial, he went on speaking and did not refer to anything I’d just talked about. In fact, he refused to call on me for the remainder of the class period. It then became clear that he’d planned to have the class argue about this freedom/license distinction for the entire class period, and resolving the issue in the first 3 minutes of class was simply not going to happen if he could help it.

I felt really burned at his assumption about where I had gotten my knowledge. I suppose I could have spoken to him one-on-one after class and tried to make my case, but that would have required a level of assertiveness that I had not yet grown into; at least, not with Mr. Potchynok, who could be an intimidating personality in a debate. As a matter of fact, he was also the moderator of the school’s debate team.

In summation, I think the world lost an asset with the passing of Mr. P. I will not pretend that I knew more about him than I did, but what I did know was mostly good. Some of the lessons he taught were not necessarily the ones he thought he was teaching, but he made his students think, and I’ve come to regard that as the most important thing a teacher can do.

Postscript— Mr. Potchynok died of smoke inhalation in an apartment fire. Investigators suspect that he became disoriented in the smoke and made a wrong turn into a closet, thinking it was the way out. I don’t suppose there are any really nice ways to die, but it is sad to hear of someone going out in a moment of such tragic banality.

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