The Teacher who opened my Mind

For one jock at Medford High, life was never the same

| January / February 2003

Take a new teacher who actually finds ideas invigorating, put him in a school where disengaged kids have resigned themselves to just getting by, and watch what happens. Here, college professor Mark Edmundson, once a high school under-achiever, pays homage to the philosophy teacher who awakened his mind. 

—The Editors 

Frank Lears came to Medford High School with big plans for his philosophy course. Together with a group of self-selected seniors, he was going to ponder the eternal questions: beauty, truth, free will, fate, that sort of thing. The class would start out reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, then go on to Plato’s dialogues, some Aristotle, Leibniz (a particular favorite of Lears’), maybe just a little bit of Kant, then into a discussion of Bertrand Russell’s effort to clear the whole thing up with an injection of clean scientific logic. Lears had just graduated from Harvard. All of his intellectual aspirations were intact.

On the first day of class, we saw a short, slight man, with olive skin—we thought he might be Mexican—wearing a skinny tie and a moth-eaten suit with a paper clip fastened to the left lapel. He had hunched shoulders and a droopy black mustache. Even when he strove for some dynamism, as he did that first day, explaining his plans for the course, he still had a melancholy presence. Having outlined the course, he turned away from us and began writing on the blackboard, in a script neater than any we would see from him again. It was a quotation from Nietzsche. He told us to get out our papers and pens and spend a couple of pages interpreting the quote “as a limbering-up exercise.” I had never heard of Nietzsche. I had never read all the way through a book that was written for adults and that was not concerned exclusively with football.

The day before, I’d sat in the office of Mrs. Olmstead, the senior guidance counselor, and been informed that I ranked 270th in a class of nearly 700. My prospects were not bright. We talked about Massachusetts Bay Community College, Salem State Teachers College; we discussed my working for the city of Medford—perhaps I’d start by collecting barrels, then graduate in time to a desk job (my father had some modest connections); I mentioned joining the Marines (I might have made it in time for the Cambodia invasion). Nothing was resolved.

As I was mumbling my way out the door, Mrs. Olmstead began talking about a new teacher who was coming to the school, “someone we’re especially proud to have.” He was scheduled to teach philosophy. I didn’t know what philosophy was, but I associated it with airy speculation, empty nothing; it seemed an agreeable enough way of wasting time.

5/26/2012 1:53:06 AM

Even though I was shy, I was constantly asking myself questions about what was being taught and seeking the answers. Even at age 86, I am still known for asking questions and wanting to learn more. I am grateful for the Internet, which can answer most of them, but as this writer expressed, there is no substitute for a live teacher to whom to ask the questions-a teacher who is engaged in life, who loves teaching because he/she loves what is being taught. I had a few of them, for which I am thankful.

5/25/2012 7:40:06 PM

Having just retired from teaching high school science, I must agree that all of us who teach because we MUST, what we really want is to share this strange crazy passion for learning, and for questioning the status quo. If we can pass on this disease, this condition that makes us see and experience every day with a sense of wonder, well -- then we have succeeded in some small way. Good teachers make students want to question EVERYTHING!!!

Julie Tower
5/25/2012 4:38:48 PM

"One pays in self doubt and isolation, in the suspicion that what seems to be true resistance is merely a perverse substitute for genuine talent, a cheap way of having something to say. Lear's path . . . separated me from my family, cut me loose from religion and popular faith, sent me adrift beyond the world bordered by TV and piety and common sense." Lear's way was and is my way although not via any teacher I can remember, not to say I didn't have some memorable ones.

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