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In Lasting Appreciation

May 6, 2011

As we wrap up teacher appreciation week, I want to honor two educators whose influence has now served me well for about 25 years.  I attended Harvard High School (now Harvard-Westlake) in North Hollywood, California.  There are two faculty members in particular whom I recall with the utmost fondness and respect.

Holmes, Cohen

Phil Holmes, with me at our 20-year class reunion (2007)

When I made the leap from freshman to sophomore English, I left behind the status of a mere student and became a young scholar, thanks to the ingenuity and high expectations of Mr. Phil Holmes.  The first signs of difference came from the air of formality in his manner and dress, and the way he addressed us by last name, turning me suddenly and prematurely into “Mr. Cohen.”  But more importantly, he elevated the level of our academic work.  When we studied “The Canterbury Tales,” one of our first assignments was to look up the word “stout” in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Since I already knew that the word described a heavy-set, solid physique, I couldn’t understand why Mr. Holmes would send us to the library to look up a rather basic word.  Well, it turns out that there are many more definitions of “stout,” and furthermore, that those meanings have shifted over time, with examples in the OED to demonstrate varied uses of the word through the centuries.  I learned from Mr. Holmes that languages have a history, a life, a soul, and that I’d better embrace that richness if I hoped to reach a fuller appreciation of literature.  I can easily recall many other details from that course, the literature we studied, and the creative, challenging assignments.

ancient mariner

Alone on a wide wide sea...

However, what stands out most for me and probably many other alumni would be the memorizations.  We memorized the prologues of “The Canterbury Tales” and “Romeo and Juliet,” along with twenty stanzas of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  (“Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea…”)  Some of my classmates found these assignments pointless.  We spent hours working on them, and even my own nearly perfect renderings earned A-minuses, never an A; Mr. Holmes’ standards were always lofty.  Still, I found the assignments gratifying.  Those pieces of literature are still with me, and though I don’t often assign memorizations myself, I hope my students through the years have seen, from my occasional recitations of those same pieces, that they have in me an English teacher who loves both literature and teaching.  I still carry those pieces of living literature inside of me, and for that, I owe a debt of gratitude to Phil Holmes.

In the fall of 1986, my senior class arrived at school to find a new administrator sitting in the office of the Head of Upper School.  Mr. John Butler had come to us from the East Coast, with his wife and two young children, and immediately became a part of our family as well.  He had a warm voice and a gracious smile, and a brightness in his eyes that I can still see nearly twenty-five years later.  At some point early in the year, he encouraged us to drop into his office to introduce ourselves and visit with him.  I was the kind of student who would take up an offer like that, and it became a habit in no time, to stop into Mr. Butler’s office when I was passing by his open door and had a few moments to spare.  I wish I could recall the content of some of our conversations, but at the same time, I’m sure that what mattered more was having such a kind and friendly adult who took an interest in me.

In the spring of 1987, we were devastated to learn that Mr. Butler had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Our senior year would turn out to be Mr. Butler’s only year at Harvard.  I understand that he returned to the East Coast, and I don’t know much more than that. But during our graduation ceremonies, there was a moment I’ll never forget. Another faculty member on the stage asked us to acknowledge Mr. Butler, and our class stood in perfect unison to applaud and honor him.  I wished that ovation could have lasted long enough to convey the depth of my feelings of thankfulness and appreciation mixed with sorrow.  I was moved to tears then, and even writing this now stirs those old emotions.  He became to me a model for how to embrace new situations with open enthusiasm, how to welcome new people into your life, how to treat young people with sincere interest and respect, and how to confront tragedy with bravery and grace.

I wish to God I could have said these things to him and to his family back then. John Butler was not my teacher in a classroom, but he taught me lessons that made me a better man.

Post scripts: Phil Holmes taught at Harvard-Westlake for decades, and at a time when he might have considered retirement, he accepted an invitation to help create the English curriculum and teach classes at View Park Preparatory, a charter school in South Central Los Angeles.  I spent a day at this school in 2007, and saw the same old, stern Mr. Holmes, seemingly unchanged in his approach and his expectations, regardless of the changes in setting and students.  For more, see Mitchell Landsberg’s 2008 article about about Phil Holmes.

And if anyone reading this knows anything about John Butler, or more importantly at this point, his family, please let me know.  I would appreciate the opportunity to share this writing with them.

Note: part of this blog post appeared in a similar post last year at TLN Teacher Voices.

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