I just learned that Ron Lester died earlier today.
I first crossed paths with Ron when he was a freshman at North Cobb High School. His mom was indefatigable in standing up for her son, who she felt was falling through the cracks at school. I didn't teach Ron then, but I knew someone who did. When she came back from a meeting with Ron and his mom, she said she's try to give Ron extra attention just to avoid having to go through another meeting like that.
Soon after, I met Ron. From the description of the meeting, I had expected Ron to be a spoiled, self-indulgent, disrespectful kid--but the Ron I met was none of those. He was a friendly kid, amiable and personable. He was also large... very large. Ron probably weighed 300 or so pounds back then, with a massive body, a full face, and a ruddy complexion that made him look like he was always blushing. But what I remember was that he had a grin that made you smile.
Ron became almost legendary at North Cobb. There are probably a million Ron Lester stories from his years there, but my favorite--told by other teachers and verified by Ron himself--involved a tornado alert. When the news of a tornado in the area came in, everyone took their classes to the central hallways to take shelter. Ron's class was in a trailer (also known as a "portable classroom," or if it was Paula Millet's or Pam Bottoms' portable classroom, a "cottage"), so the teacher brought the class into the building. Somehow, though, Ron sneaked away. "I just wanted to see if a tornado was strong enough to move me," Ron said. Apparently it was. Ron was standing outside, playing the goof, with his arms outspread, when a tremendous gust of wind slammed him into a trailer. He hit with such force that he actually made a more-or-less-body-shaped dent in the metal trailer exterior. It was just like a bad Chuck Jones cartoon. Ron loved that dent, and made a point of showing it to me more than once.
Later on, I had Ron in my mass media class. The course had units on film study, music, magazines, comic books, and more, and Ron absolutely loved it. The film unit fascinated him; he watched every movie intently, asking questions about camera angles and cinematic effects and visual symbolism and cinematography--questions that were so astute and insightful that other students alternated between being amazed and aggravated. They were amazed that Ron saw all of this stuff that they didn't--and they were aggravated that he loved to talk about it at length when they were ready to move on to something else. There were many days when Ron would come by my class before school or during lunch just to finish up discussions that had begun in mass media.
So imagine my surprise when, two weeks before the end of the semester, Ron quit doing anything. He didn't turn in any work, including his final class project. He didn't even show up to take his final. He failed the class. I was dumbfounded; Ron absolutely, positively knew the material better than anyone else in the room. Had a done something to upset him? If so, he hid it well; every time I saw him in the hall, he was friendly and enthusiastic, with that same unforgettable grin. Finally I called him aside and asked what was going on.
"I'm failing math."
I didn't understand what that had to do with my mass media class.
"I'm failing math, so I have to come back next semester to take math again. I can't take just one class, though--I have to take at least two classes. So I'm failing mass media so that I can take it again, because I really love this class."
Perfect Ron logic.
Just to make sure there wouldn't be problems later, I asked Ron to have his mom call me to make sure she understood the reason for his failing grade. "I do," she said. "It's his favorite class, and he really wants to take it again." She also told me how many times he had come home from school and told her about what we had covered in mass media that day.
I've been lucky enough to connect with a number of students over the years, but never had I known a student who liked my class so much that he failed it on purpose just because he wanted to take it again. But Ron did. Even more remarkably, he was just as engaged and insightful the second time around... I never doubted that he really did love the class.
"I'm going to be an actor," Ron told me at the end of the semester the second time around. I probably raised my eyebrows in surprise, because Ron repeated it, adding "really" to the end of the sentence.
And he was right. He was going to be an actor.
Ron did some standup comedy and took a few bit parts as an extra before getting his big break in Varsity Blues. The role made him--but it also typecast him. He played much the same sort of character on the TV series Popular. He even parodied his Varsity Blues role in Not Another Teen Movie.
But Ron got tired of being the fat guy, he told me. So he decided to get healthy. He couldn't do it with exercise and diet alone, though, so he had gastric bypass surgery. And it worked--he lost over 300 pounds, shaped up, and suddenly the amiable fat guy looked like a handsome leading man.
"It killed my career," he told me. "Everyone calls me looking for the fat guy. I show up, and they don't want the healthy me--they still want the fat guy."
Ron struggled to find his career again. He had written a screenplay for a NASCAR-focused film, Racing Dreams, that he really wanted to make. He had put his heart into it, and the script was pretty solid. The lead character was pure Ron, all the way through. He tried again and again to get that film done, but it never came together. It broke his heart, he said; this was the one movie he really wanted to make.
We talked on the phone from time to time, exchanged some emails, saw each other a time or two. At one point, he joked about getting a job at my comic shop because at least I didn't always tell him "I'm looking for the fat guy" when he came by to see me.
I didn't hear from Ron much in the past year or so. The last talk we had, he told me that there were times that he wished he'd never had the surgery. "I had it all, everything I wanted," he said, "but it all went away when I lost the weight." He was somber for a minute--then he made a joke far too vulgar for me to repeat here, laughed, and even though we were talking on the phone, I could see that Ron Lester grin.
The last email we exchanged was about having your dream and not knowing it until it's too late. "I'm a low-budget Jay Gatsby," he said, and suddenly I realized that he had gotten a lot more out of David Merrick's production of Great Gatsby than I ever realized.
At the end of the email, he added this line: "Thank you for being such a great teacher to my dumb ass!"
You weren't dumb, my friend. Never were.
I'm going to miss you, Ron.