Today, I give thanks for Martin Obrentz who died on November 17, 2014, at the age of 84. He was my English teacher for three years at Miami Springs Senior High School in the late 1970s. He was the only true teacher I have ever had. I am who I am because of him.
I came from a home filled with Classical music, but where literature was mostly absent. I was supposed to be a doctor, so it was all science. Mr. Obrentz changed all that the very first week of tenth grade. He introduced this Hialeah kid to an entire universe of letters and showed me how it might all be connected, not by rote or command, by diagram or syllabus, but by enthusiastically pointing up and encouraging me to connect it all together myself.
There are entire books, passages, pages, and lines from world literature that exist only in his voice. And thanks to him there are many more that exist in my own voice, from the first page of Lolita to the last page of the Great Gatsby, dozens of poems and lyrics, as well as fragments of text that surface at the oddest times.
Mr. Obrentz also taught Film Studies at Miami Springs. I was somehow allowed to take the class for two years in a row. Watching movies and talking and arguing about them are still one of my greatest pleasures. Where else could a kid from Hialeah see The Battleship Potemkin, The Seventh Seal, La Strada, the original Nosferatu, Modern Times, and dozens more? I still have the dreadful Siegfried Krakauer textbook somewhere in the house.
Learning with him always went “outside the walls.” He was the advisor of our Literary Club and took us to see art films at the Cinematheque, live theater where we could find it, concerts. The evenings sometimes ended at Chippy's, a deli on Miracle Mile.
Mr. Obrentz also pushed us to “go outside and play” intellectually. If you asked or if he thought you needed more, he would go beyond the reading list to suggest books that would challenge or books that would otherwise never appear in a high school English class.
I often tell people that teaching is my vocation. When I heard that Mr. Obrentz had died, I sat down and took a few minutes to think about him and what I learned from him. I also looked back on my own life as a teacher and I concluded that that was not true. Teaching is not my vocation. At that moment, the word took on a connotation of abnegation, a humorless dedication to duty. To be a true teacher, teaching should be your vocation, but that is not enough. You have to be willing to lead your students into new territory, you have to be daring enough to share your wonder, you have to be willing to take risks and be subversive in the service of your students, you have to live and show them the simcha of learning. Most of all, you must know when to stop and let them move along their own intellectual paths always hoping they will remember.
I know he didn't do it only for us; he did it for himself, too. As a teacher, as a 55-year old man, I do it for my students and for myself. Each year I get to experience the excitement of sharing something familiar or something new with my students understanding well that I may be reaching only a few of them. That is the nature of things, but I feel no guilt about my pleasure in Machiavelli or Stravinsky or the perfect pastelito.
In my senior yearbook he wrote: “Dear Juan, whose intellect and generous spirit reminds me that ‘libero' and ‘libertas' are the common root of ‘liberal,' affectionate good wishes for a long life of accomplishments and happiness.”
And in his memory and in gratitude I write these words. Thank you, Mr. Obrentz.
Juan Carlos Espinosa