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Inspiring Action: Students and Colleagues Rise to the Aid of Injured Moline Teacher PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Tushar Rae   
Wednesday, 29 December 2010 10:27

Curtis Butterfield, Sarah Mason-Butterfield, and their daughter Clara. Photo courtesy Sarah Mason-Butterfield.He was a frightening figure when I first met him, with tattoos of verses in Arabic and lines from literature on his arms, a shaved head, a ragged beard, and the combination of a stern voice and piercing gaze.

As an Indian who is often mistaken for someone from the Middle East, I had received plenty of negative attention from people who looked like him. But I could not avoid him.

It was 2002, and Curtis Butterfield was my freshman biology teacher and my coach for the junior-varsity academic team at Moline High School.

Early in the school year, Butterfield gave me a confrontation, but not the one I had been dreading.

“You know this is not your best work,” he said, with the voice and glare used to full effect, “and if you think you’re staying in my class, you need to start doing better work.”

Butterfield “doesn’t invite people to come in and learn; he demands that students learn,” said Nicholas Pitz, a Moline High German teacher and varsity academic-team coach. “Learning is not an option.”

Butterfield was an exacting teacher but also exceedingly generous. To help me learn outside of the curriculum, he gave me access before and after school to his classroom – a place I visited almost daily for four years – and provided me with leftover materials (such as fetal pigs and owl pellets) from biology classes.

That imposing man, both stern and helpful, is missing – for now.

His knife work in dissection was impeccable in the classroom. Today, he has trouble opening a Christmas card.

And although the tattoos and beard remain, Butterfield has lost the authority of his eyes and voice. During a recent visit, he looked down at his mitt-covered hands and had difficulty recognizing people or focusing on conversation.

But when I was in high school, Butterfield was more than willing to engage in discussions ranging from whether New York City sewers can support the flushed pet alligators of urban legend to how Buddhist beliefs about meditation and achieving nirvana could be combined with orthodox Christian doctrine.

He introduced me to hip-hop and rap, including Outkast and Ice Cube. We discovered a mutual appreciation for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani singer little-known in the Midwest.

Butterfield often used music to connect with his students, and his classroom had posters for artists ranging from Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi to the hardcore band Bloodlet.

Stephen Neujahr, a former student, bonded with Butterfield over a shared interest in heavy music. “When we’d have free time in class, he’d tell me funny stories about his old band, Uphold,” Neujahr wrote in a recent e-mail.

Butterfield also introduced Neujahr to political organizations, including the radical environmental group Earth First – whose Web site claims it engages in everything from “grassroots organizing and involvement in the legal process to civil disobedience and monkey-wrenching.”

Like that organization, Butterfield is a believer in direct action.

Amber Andress, a volunteer with Butterfield through the Quad Cities Natural Area Guardians, recalled how Butterfield made seed bombs with his students. These are combinations of soil, clay, and the seeds of native prairie grasses and flowers – which often grow to look like most people’s conceptions of weeds. The “bombs” can be tossed anyplace lacking some nature, usually without permission from the owner of the land.

“Once he had a cause that he deemed worthy, he didn’t hesitate to uphold it, regardless of opposition,” Andress wrote in an e-mail. “It also represents his creativity and unique sense of humor, which was ubiquitous in everything he did.”

In 2004 and 2005, he led the initiative to plant a prairie next to the Moline High School driver-education range.

“That he [Butterfield] took it upon himself to build a prairie on school grounds is amazing,” Neujahr wrote. “Through these and other things, he reinforced my belief in the power of direct action.”

So when Neujahr heard that Butterfield had suffered a serious brain injury, he didn’t hesitate.

“I wanted to organize a benefit show for him – not as a form of charity, but to show my solidarity with him as a driven person,” Neujahr wrote.

The concert, to be held on January 1 at the Moline Club, features Bent Life, Space Race, Centaur Noir, Maylane, and Is World. Admission is $5.

The show is aimed at helping Butterfield and his wife cover the costs of child care, gas, food, and other day-to-day needs as Sarah Mason-Butterfield splits her time between home and her husband’s bedside. The additional costs come at a time of reduced income, because Sarah – an instructor at Kaplan – has reduced her teaching load from three classes to one for the coming term.