[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.
Todd Singer, from the Class of 1980, had a razor-sharp wit and eager, tail-wagging spirit. There was no one like him. In ninth grade, he discovered the thesaurus and proudly worked unparalleled into the first paragraph of every paper, no matter the topic. During a lecture that I thought was brilliant, I mentioned not owning a television. He raised his hand in amazement to ask: “Have you ever heard of Walter Cronkite?” and leveled my scholarly ego. Todd loved to pantomime outside the plate glass window by my desk. His favorite performance was Man Running Into The Wind To Chase His Dog. I collapsed into giggles every time. Because of him, I learned that teaching was about more than grammar rules and Shakespeare. It was about paying attention to the expectant, deserving hearts of teenagers.]
I have been invited to write this post just weeks after making aliyah–immigrating to Israel. It could not be more perfect timing. Moving to Jerusalem is like returning to the Mothership after being embedded in the planet Earth for fifty-four years. My soul has reentered its natural habitat and often I trudge through a debriefing of my life as I understood it. What emerges is a painful and personal inventory, a scrupulous reality.
I arrived at Holland Hall Preparatory School in 1975, at the height of Oklahoma’s oil boom, when petroleum and Coors coursed through the veins of gold-clad wildcatters. I believed that I was among the rich, the beautiful, the powerful. I remain eternally grateful that, through my parents’ generosity and sacrifice, I was plucked from the policed hallways of a recently desegregated public school–where, along with bussed black students, I endured bigoted slurs and bullying on a weekly basis.
I was a loner. Loners can be shunned or admired. I felt like the former.
Holland Hall was a fresh start. Bully-free, I knew that I would be embraced by all of my peers. By the end of my eighth-grade year, I was arguably popular–one of three Jewish students in my class. I channeled Richard Pryor and Dan Aykroyd to wide acclaim. I had arrived.
Then on to ninth grade. Parochial high schools can be infected with a bacterial smugness in academics, athletics, religion and social status. Holland Hall was no exception, and these pathologies resulted in significant pain. Prepubescent, slight-framed, uncoordinated, with afro and braces, I relegated myself once again to the solitary role of court jester, just like I had in public school.
For me, there was no overt bullying at the upper school, except for one member of the senior class. “Dan” was Jewish and seemed fearful of another Jew usurping his minority authority in a land where Episcopalian girls required no plastic surgery. Backed by his goonish jock minion, Dan suspended me by the collar of my new corduroy winter jacket on the inside coat hook of my cramped locker and then he shut its door. I still remember their muffled laughter outside of my makeshift cell.
I didn’t exist.
Where had those idealistic days of middle school gone? How could my popularity have plummeted so quickly? After all, I was constantly developing new material. Those button-nosed girls with Revlon hair were no longer in my fan club. They had become the adored property of upperclassmen athletes.
There were many places students congregated to socialize, but the most popular was aptly named The Commons, a parquet wood-floor wasteland, where at each corner, a class staked its homestead, freshmen through seniors. Although many students viewed The Commons as an incubator for haute transformation, for me it was a tributary to a much larger pool of wisdom and nurturement. Its curtilage housed teachers’ offices and cubicles where, within only a few feet of one another, three educators did something quite remarkable; they listened to my heart and challenged my mind.
Through them, I found my refuge and salvation. Their patience, humor, and brilliant instruction struck an artful balance, providing unconditional love without encroaching upon the roles of my parents. Whether it was the tragic death of a fifteen-year-old classmate, my own unkindness and insensitivity to another teacher or classmate, or the euphoria of my first infatuation, they were always there. Through their skillful navigation, I made excellent progress, treasured friendships, and the discovery on my own talents and interests.
Several years ago, after more than two decades in the legal profession, I realized a lifelong dream and became a high school history teacher in an underserved North Carolina farming community. My desire to teach is a direct result of those three teachers at Holland Hall.
Many of my students were in homeless programs, foster homes, protective custody, and living in abject poverty. Most of them had only one parent or guardian living in their home. In many of those homes, family members suffered from untreated drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and disabilities. One semester, after showing students the movie Schindler’s List, “Lisa” tearfully approached my desk and I asked her what was wrong. “Mr. Singer, I thought that my life was bad until this movie and now I feel so lucky. I don’t have it bad at all,” she cried.
I was in a conundrum.
Lisa had a very hard life. How should I respond? She was in DDS custody due to physical abuse and environmental neglect and had been separated from her brothers and sisters, all of whom were in separate foster homes. My first thought: “How would Karen Henry Clark respond?” I then suggested to Lisa that the purpose of this Holocaust lesson was not to discount or compare our pain to the pain of others. Its purpose was to acknowledge that even with pain, we can survive. Even with tragedy, our legacy can live on. And in the midst of evil, we can discover our own humanity.
It was then I realized that Lisa was teaching me through her example and that I had carried forward the profound life lessons that Karen gifted me.
There are those days, while muddling through mundane tasks, I pause and realize how blessed I am to have known these three teachers at Holland Hall. It is my prayer, that at some point in their lives, Karen Henry Clark, Craig Benton, and Alice Price have paused and realized the enduring impact that their dedicated lives continue to have upon mine.
A former prosecutor, judge, adjunct law professor, lobbyist and high school history teacher, Todd now lives in Jerusalem.
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