Howard Friedman: A Real Life Superman


Contrary to popular belief, Superman's real name is not Clark Kent. It's Howie Friedman.

Not surprising you never heard of him. He wasn't a rock star, or an actor, or a titan of industry, or anyone of any consequence to the general public. But, make no mistake, to the kids he taught and those whose lives he touched, he was every bit a celebrity.

For nearly 40 years "Mr. Friedman" taught chemistry and physics at Fair Lawn high school in a quiet middle-class suburb of northern New Jersey. Ask anyone who went there during his tenure, which stretched from the 70s to mid 2012, and they'll tell you, hands down, Mr. Friedman was the most popular teacher in the school.

It wasn't because he was the most athletic; he was lucky to hit the ball past the infield. And it definitely wasn't because he was the best-looking. In fact, he would brag about being the 37th Most Allergic Person on the Planet. Whether it was true or not, it probably was close.

Mr. Friedman wasn't unattractive by any stretch, but his obviously sensitive, neon pink skin, covered in what seemed to be a permanent outbreak of rashes from years of simply trying to eat normally, wasn't going to win him G.Q.'s Man of the Year contest, either. But, while that seemingly life-altering predicament might have driven any one of us to the 'dark side,' it never seemed to bother "Mr. F." In fact, not only did he wear it like a badge of honor, during my entire four-year stint at Fair Lawn High in the early eighties, I can't recall a single day in which I saw Howie Friedman in a bad mood.

Consider how many "normal" teachers you've known wherein the opposite is true, not to mention, now that I have a few decades of perspective, with all the issues most of us face in our personal lives on a daily basis, to show up each and every day to work like it's your birthday is quite remarkable in itself. You could tell this man loved his job.

While most teachers in our school dressed business casual to come to work, Mr. Friedman always dressed as if he was on his way to a rock concert. Blue Jeans, a flannel, and usually a Jethro Tull, or some obscure 70s prog band's tour shirt underneath. In the spring he'd lose the flannel.

Outward appearances aside, the thing that made Mr. Friedman stand out to many of us, was not his wardrobe or his numerous, endearing afflictions. It was that he was one of us, through and through. And, by that, I don't mean he would let us cheat or smoke pot in front of him or anything like that. In fact, just the opposite. Not only would he push you to do your best, and call you on it when he knew you weren't, he never treated you as if he knew more than you. He never talked down to you or patronized you if he saw you make a mistake. He always treated you with respect.

Keep in mind, we're talking mostly about 15 and 16 year-old kids, here. A time when the majority of us are at the peak of our impressionability and the height of our insecurity. Mr. Friedman was someone who would never exploit the weakness or vulnerability in his students. He would never publicly embarrass anyone in front of the class, no matter the infraction. If he did, it was done with humor and turned into a gag, from which, even the perpetrator would laugh.

Rather then tell you what you couldn't do, Mr. F. would make it a point to tell you what you could. A guidance-counselor-on-steroids in disguise, Mr. F. would push you way beyond the boundaries of his classroom and encourage you to express yourself, in whatever way you wanted, no matter if it was "cool" or not. He had a God-given gift to make you feel instantly at ease, as if that big, life-threatening secret you were hiding all year was suddenly no big deal. And, boy, did he love music. He was always walking the halls humming a tune from the likes of Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf. Usually rocking the finest air guitar ever played by a science geek.

In my senior year, in the spring of 1985, Mr. Friedman approached my friend Matt and I with the idea of forming a student/teacher rock band to perform at the charity softball marathon the upperclassmen participated in as an annual ritual since the dawn of time. The 72 hour, round-the-clock softball tournament made up of the entire senior class, each Memorial Day weekend, would draw the entire town out to cheer the kids on and to raise money for the selected charity (try throwing a non-stop, 3-day party, featuring beer and minors, and sanctioned by your town, now. #LMFAO).

The first year we did it, it was about six kids, three teachers, a handful of spectators, and a crap-ass P.A. The earth didn't shake. The seas didn't part. In fact, people barely noticed.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and "The Boptones" as the band came to be known, is now the hottest ticket in town. Each year hundreds of kids audition for the few coveted spots backing up their favorite dozen or so teachers, singing everything from Green Day to The Stones, playing for several hours, and, due to the crowds of hundreds it now draws, moved indoors to the school auditorium.

In 2012, after our big surprise reunion at Mr. Friedman's retirement party, attended by a thousand or so of his closest friends, I wrote a blog about it called Mr. Friedman's Opus, which I paraphrased below and is the reason I feel he deserves to be celebrated, even by those who don't know him.

I realized that at the very least, the one thing I left the school with that night was knowledge that couldn't be taught in a classroom; that one teacher, armed with the gift of music and a generous spirit, can bring an entire community together just by being crazy enough to "put it out there" and see what happens.

That night there were no cliques, no insults being hurled, nobody getting beaten up outside by the "Green Hill", no teachers behaving condescendingly toward the students. Everyone was "gettin' their groove on" together, like one big happy Partridge Family. And, I couldn't help but think, the next time a problem arises with a classmate, when a temper may cause someone to do something they'd later regret, simply remembering the sight of their teacher singing Black Sabbath with them, might make them laugh, instead.

The above, more than anything else, is proof that one person can make a difference in, not one, but hundreds and possibly thousands, of lives. That, in an era of Youtube bullies and Mean Girls, there are teachers like Howie Friedman who quietly go about their business of changing the world one kid at a time, all while wearing his uniform of choice: a pair of worn-out jeans and a faded Jethro Tull t-shirt.

Back then, there was no such thing as iTunes or American Idol. Teachers rocking out with students in School of Rock was, believe it or not, still two decades away.

One day, many moons from now, we're going to wake up in a world where great teachers are treated with the respect and reverence we show to great athletes. Where education and the people who educate, especially in my home state of New Jersey, are the priority and not tossed to the side behind big business and industry.

Howard Friedman never lived to see that day, as he passed away this past Easter Sunday, and, odds are, I won't, either. But, I don't think he minds.

Mr. Friedman was the kind of guy who would've done it for nothing. For him, it was all about the kids, and that's why I thought he deserved a mention here. He would never ask for it, never seek it, and, most likely, would have been embarrassed by it. But, it's quite possible he affected the life of someone you know. Maybe even you.

Rest in Peace, H.F. If anyone deserves to wear that cape, it's you and those like you.