Fifty Years in the Making

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

At first glance it seemed like an unlikely place for an extended philosophical discussion of education. Then again perhaps it was the perfect setting for teachers, young and old, to gain an appreciation for the potential lifelong impact of their classrooms and consequently the heavy responsibility that possible outcome brings with it.

And to think it was supposed to be simply a 50-year high school reunion.

Oldies but goodies

For the sake of full disclosure I must explain that recently I was dragged by my best friend thousands of miles, kicking and screaming most of the journey, to a gathering of my high school class of 1964. For my buddy this event was just another in a long series of these get-togethers. Of course he had good reasons to relish these meetings—fifty years ago he had been the star of the state championship football team, steady date of the captain of the cheerleading squad and on his way to a scholarship to the University of Virginia. I, the owner of a significantly lower social profile during those same years, was far less motivated to revisit a world in which I perceived I had made scant impact.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was not a total outcast among the 200 in attendance and that my experiences in the classroom both as a student and teacher would somehow become center stage.

Time does not dull all memories

It was at breakfast on the Sunday after the final gathering and a group of six alums were gathered around a large round table. Richard, now a dentist in Lake Tahoe, posed an interesting question to the assembled group: “Which of your teachers was the most influential in your life?” Without hesitation I answered “My Junior English teacher John Harocopus,” then added, “he was my model in my career especially in terms of classroom management. He was young and not physically imposing but he was passionate about his subject and ran a wonderfully disciplined and demanding class.” I went on to explain that I later adapted many of his methods in my own classroom.

My friend, who in addition to his athletic talents was highly successful academically, quickly joined the conversation. “For me it was Col. Brose. He brought history alive for me and to this day he gave me a strong interest in the subject. He was a great teacher who brought the curriculum alive for everyone in the class.” A former star basketball player seated across the table nodded in agreement with this choice.

And so it went for fifteen minutes, six men all hovering around the age of 68 and five decades removed from public education vividly discussing the profound influence wielded by educators they had encountered when John Kennedy was President. In the midst of the conversation my wife, a retired Biology teacher, leaned over to me and whispered, “More than a little scary what a difference teachers can make. Every person in education should have to listen to something like this.” The proof of this assertion was clearly on display.

And on the flip side

During the course of the reunion not all of the memories were so positive. At the second reception a man approached me and introduced himself by saying, “I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Steve Alsop. We were in eleventh-grade U.S. History together.” Surprisingly once he had given me his name I did, indeed, remember him. “When I saw your name on the list of attendees,” he continued, “I couldn’t wait to ask you if you remembered the time you were asked the question about the British and Colonists in the Revolutionary War.”

My blank look indicated a total lack of recall of an event that occurred in 1962. “I’m afraid I don’t,” I said somewhat sheepishly.

A smile crossed his face. It was apparent that this incident was still an amazingly fresh memory. “So that crazy teacher of ours says to the class, ‘Given all of the circumstances entering into the war, which side had the advantage, the British or the Colonists?’” The grin widened. “Well, everyone was terrified that she would call on them and then she looked at you and said, ‘Stu Singer, what do you think?’ I’ll never forget how you gave a wonderful answer explaining all of the numerous factors favoring the British. It was a compelling argument, an extremely powerful argument. So after you had finished and most of the class was nodding in agreement she says, ‘Now that was very logical, but it just wasn’t the answer I was looking for.’ Steve shook his head and put his hand on my shoulder. “At that point you just looked back at me a few rows away and rolled your eyes. I will never forget that moment.”

While I had no such recollection the implication was clear—this hypocritical and bizarre response by a teacher had left a permanent and obviously negative impression on this individual. The question that went through my mind was “how many other people at this reunion have similar stories?”

During the course of the three days other teachers, some good others not so much, were placed under a similar half-century old microscope. The take-home message for this retired educator was clear. Fifty or more years after the classroom instruction had been completed the palpable impact on many of the students, positive and negative, remained.

It is as important lesson for educators in 2014 as it was in 1964.

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