These Teachers Changed My Life

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In the schoolyard, spontaneous fights igniting daily. Less regularly, down the road in dirt lots hidden from adult eyes, carefully orchestrated donnybrooks. On the playground blacktop, the sport of choice, "Kill the Man with the Ball"--but only when stuffing unsuspecting sixth graders into the garbage can for a roll down the hill got boring. Classes bulged 35 students deep, taught by men and women who should have been awarded gold medals for valor and patience. Their devotion and energies were largely wasted on me, however: Any intellectual spark I had was lighting a very distant horizon. My instincts at the time were keenly social in nature. Adolescent boys are often a problematic lot, and I was no exception. My public junior high school was a rough one, and I was rough right along with it.

My parents, believing that I could become more (more civilized, more caring, more studious) in another school setting, offered me the chance to explore the option of boarding schools. This was a good thing. I needed to escape the clutches of my own ignorance and the walls of a small town.

I applied to just one school. With the surprising acceptance letter came the mild shock that it would risk its reputation on me--but in September off I went, sweaty with trepidation, to the oldest boarding school in the country, Governor Dummer Academy, founded in 1763. (The name only proved helpful, I am sure, in the early days of the Academy, as William Dummer was appointed by the Crown to govern the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He bequeathed his estate to fund a school that would prepare deserving students for Harvard College. GDA is now officially Governor's Academy.) What a fine school it was and is!

The great gift of the Academy at that time was its teachers. These men (yes, all men; all white) were known as the Old Guard. They had been hired by the longstanding headmaster, Ted Eames, a former protégé of Deerfield's Frank Boyden. They shared the qualities of good humor, high standards, ebullient energy, and outstanding mastery of their subjects and sports. To a one they cared for and looked after their charges. And they understood and liked us.

For the first time in my life, my teachers became my friends. They pushed me; they stretched me; they held me to a high standard while accepting the fact that I was miles from perfect on nearly every front. They invited my peers and me into their lives in traditional and extraordinary ways: donuts and apple cider the night before a "big" JV soccer game; extra help at night in their studies as we labored over papers or strained to understand math problems; lessons in lacrosse stick repairs (yes, old school: ash and hickory wooden sticks with leather and cat-gut stringing); satisfying meals of steak and fries for perpetually voracious teen appetites; trips to plays and concerts; even vacation expeditions (more on this shortly).

Two of these extraordinary men for me were G. Heberton "Heb" Evans III, math teacher, lacrosse and wrestling coach, and published author; and Marshal Clunie, our delightful, funny, urbane, acerbic, and exacting teacher of English.

Calling Heb a great teacher and coach was, in the words of one of his wrestlers, like calling Everest a mountain or the Empire State a building: true but inadequate. He was the complete master and expert of all that he undertook. He studied technique from the best or developed his own mastery by teaching himself. He instructed in clear, systematic, and logical ways; he identified appropriate challenges for his students and then asked for more than they knew they had. His success came from believing in his students and athletes before they ever believed in themselves. In so doing, he created adults out of adolescents, one generation after another. He absolutely and fundamentally changed my life by teaching me how sustained effort, diligent learning, and growing from failure can lead to high achievement, deep satisfaction, and the birth of selflessness.

Marshal Clunie was a fun coach and a dynamic, demanding teacher--and my first encounter with a Renaissance Man. He wrote beautifully, played classical music on the piano and a harpsichord which, naturally, he built himself, just as he constructed his own log home on a wilderness lake in northern Maine. He instructed me not only in the art of writing but also helped me tear down my benighted boundaries around literature, poetry, and music. That he was a master craftsman and carpenter never rubbed off on me, but I most certainly admired his work. And his enthusiasm about literature was infectious. He introduced us to Thoreau's Walden with a big smile and the assurance that we were about to read one of the most important works in American Literature. We launched into the treatise expecting greatness, and we found it. Faced with our first reading of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and brought to our knees by the impossibility of ever understanding Benjy's cris de coeur, my classmates and I were ready to give up. But we trusted Mr. Clunie--and, of course, we soon discovered Faulkner's genius.

Marshal also showed us that boarding school could be plain fun--and he could take it and dish it out. I had a fireplace in my senior year room, but no firewood. Clunie's porch brimmed with dry hardwood logs. Naturally, my pals and I snuck over to his cottage dormitory and heisted several choice logs (not too many, really--and he had plenty left) for a nice warm fire for us on that cold fall day in New England. Several days later I was scouring my room for my wool Scottish cap. Who'd stolen it? And there walking across campus, wearing my cap, was none other than Master Clunie. Fair retribution. I loved the guy.

Top-flight woodsmen and whitewater experts, Heb and Marshal led Hudson Bay trips for the Keewaydin Canoe Camp. In my junior year spring break, they invited a classmate and me to fly onto frozen stretches of Lake Temagami in northern Ontario for ice fishing and snowshoeing. We holed up in Heb's summer cabin where frigid gusts shot through the chinks, built roaring fires, met a Cree Indian trapper, and reveled in a winter wilderness expedition. Imagine, I thought, actually devoting vacation time to adventures with teachers: a revolutionary concept. It was then that I glimpsed the magical lesson about teaching and teens: When teens learn to trust, they let down the barriers impeding their learning. Their intellect opens and starts devouring the learning and wisdom coming its way. Healthy constructive relationships are the master key to opening up a world of learning for adolescents.

These teachers changed my life. They looked into me and held me accountable. They taught me how to study and work hard, how to write and calculate. They helped me grow up from an ignorant boy and set me on a path to become a scholar and an athlete. They showed me how adults other than my parents could have a powerful and critical impact in the life of a teen; they showed me how teachers can be the greatest gifts in the lives of the young as they begin to move from family to the larger world.

We learn by being taught, but also by watching--watching how those we trust live their lives, seeing what they value. I learned that teachers teach most effectively when their students know that they care for them, that they will hold them to a high standard, and expect more from them than they initially expect from themselves. I learned that the friendship of a teacher is a bulwark in difficult times. Of course, we rely on the love of our parents, but to have the respect and caring of a teacher over the years is also a priceless gift.

In writing this, I thank my teachers: not only Heb and Marshal, but the many over the years who took the time to help me and my classmates on our way, who believed in us. And I thank, deeply and profoundly, the Thacher teachers, past and present, who have devoted their lives to their charges here at Casa de Piedra. Along these lines, if those influential teachers of yours are still alive, write them and thank them. I suspect this will mean the world to them, and this is only fair, because they opened the world to you.

Michael K. Mulligan is the Head of The Thacher School in Ojai, California. A graduate of Middlebury College, The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has taught, coached, and counseled teens for 38 years