A Tribute to Jett Colonna
Play this to remember Jett at his best:
Jett Colonna passed away last week, finally succumbing to the cancer he had fought for so long. His departure somehow compels the words that follow. There are many teachers who served this school well for many years whose death, while a terrible loss to family and community, will not be chronicled here. Those omissions are not meant to belittle any of them. But the truth is there will never again be someone like Jett Colonna.
Jett taught and coached here from 1969 – 2001. For most of that time he taught Ancient Civilizations – there were some years in which he had every member of the 8th grade class. He coached football every year and sometimes basketball as well. Over the years he added many posters and pictures to the walls of his classroom. When he ran out of space he hung things from the ceiling, including a pair of boxing gloves worn by world champion light-weight Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker in one of his title fights. To walk into room 239 was to enter a place of fantasy and history, of beauty and violence, and above all of heart and soul.
In describing Jett, one of the first words that comes to mind, particularly in his former students, is fierce. Whether in the gym, the classroom, or on the football field, Jett was full-bore, almost combative. He could lose himself in a tragic tale about some figure of ancient times, and his students, rapt to the core, would happily get lost with him. He was always in complete control of his classroom, partly because he brought history so beautifully to life, but also because if you displeased him as a student you would literally feel his wrath. The legends of his occasional tirades are all simultaneously unbelievable and true.
Likewise, Jett pursued athletics in general and physical fitness in particular with ferocity. People like to say that they “hit” the weight room. With Jett that was literally true. The deadweights would find themselves tossed around like the poor weak playthings that they were. Similarly, if you were one of his football players, particularly a lineman, you were quickly given to understand the life-or-death nature of the contest before you. If at the end of the game there was anything left in your tank, then you had left yourself and the team down. This thing called football was not a game; it was a test of manhood.
All of which would make Jett Colonna a memorable figure but not unlike many of his ilk. What distinguished Jett was his capacity to match his fierceness with peace and tranquility. This side of him allowed him to listen to life as poets might yearn to do. Jett may have been at his best out on the ocean, waiting for the next wave but in no hurry to do anything. He would go to Costa Rica for two weeks every winter (sometimes during the school year!) to get away to nature and to better waves than he could find here. His substitute would show the movie “The Endless Summer” in his absence. He would return shaggy-haired, unshaved, and filled with spiritual refreshment. That calm he rediscovered on the water served him and his students well for the other 50 weeks of his year.
Above all, Jett’s ability to simplify made it easy for him to understand his students. He could see through adolescent self-defenses and know the real child behind whatever behavior he was dealing with. Those that let him in on their true selves found themselves sustained. There may have been a bit of correction in the exchange, but Jett propelled many young people down the road that was meant for them. One of my former students, now a successful career woman and mother, said it best. When we talked about Jett’s passing, she said, “He was the first person to believe in my crazy dreams.” Heaven knows how many others there are who became better young people because they were taught or coached by Mr. Colonna.
Every school day I walk into Jett’s room to teach my four bells of Ancient History. All that beautiful paraphernalia has disappeared, but 13 years after he stopped teaching there, it is still Jett’s room. From time to time I have thought about how Jett would have presented this material, or how Jett might have handled this situation. I suspect I will think that more often in the future. I will redouble my efforts to be more like him. But the truth is that I never will be.
That’s because no one on earth could be.