At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Delight

And further back into the halls of Davis history we go, hurtling in reverse fashion to Westminster Senior High School in the rolling hills of Westminster, Maryland. There can be a significant amount of anxiety about the state of American secondary education; much of it centers on the performances of public education. Yet I was blessed to attend and graduate (Class of 1988) from a solid public high school, and the home of the Owls happened to be the stomping grounds of many teachers who spurred students on to excellence.

This wouldn't be possible today--given the way course selection has been aligned with Advanced Placement choices--but I had the chance to take US History twice during high school. Whereas today students take either US History or Advanced Placement US History during their junior year of high school, in my days US History was a tenth grade course and you had the option to take the AP class (abbreviated as APUSH) during your junior or senior year if you felt up to it.

And I felt up to it. Two whole years of American history at a critical juncture in my life, when I was pondering a life beyond high school, wistfully asking What will I study in college?

That question was answered through the influence of the fourth member of my "Great Teachers" pantheon, Mr. Ralph Shewell. One year of tenth grade US History wasn't enough to satisfy me; I signed on and got him again for APUSH during my senior year. Getting between me and the chance to sit in "Uncle Ralph's" classes was like getting between a starving bloodhound and a steak, between Goliath and David's stone, between Michael Phelps and Olympic immortality. You just didn't go there.

Through all my history classes before Mr. Shewell, the teachers kept me engaged but the pace was a fairly perfunctory level. Much was made of the typical trinity of textbook reading, worksheet activity, and group projects. And then I walked into room 222 for the first day of my sophomore year and experienced the highly oxygenated atmosphere that Pat Conroy has Will McLean describe so well in The Lords of Discipline. Mr. Shewell had textbooks, of course (you couldn't have APUSH without one), but the lifeblood of our classes was his ability to turn history into a story. I would literally feel like I was on the set of a major cinematic production; that's how lively he made history seem. He was the history version of Robin Williams' character from Dead Poets Society (although we ripped no pages from our books).

It was then that I realized this was what I wanted to study. I wanted to go to the river of history and keep drinking the stream of the past into myself, for I knew it would never run dry. And I had this desire simply because Mr. Shewell was authentically excited to teach history. This wasn't something he felt like he had to do; it was something he got to do.

Every time I watch Chariots of Fire, I'm enthralled by the scene when Eric Liddell tells his sister Jenny, "...God also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Every day in class, I always thought Mr. Shewell felt the fire of a divine smile within him. He was teaching history, and why would he want to do anything else?

"Uncle Ralph" also delighted in quirky asides and cultural references. We had more than our share of jokes, of John Wayne references, of competitions. When he found I could gulp down a chocolate milkshake from the cafeteria at a serious clip, he bought one and tried to match that record in front of our entire APUSH class.

If you were a member of the Shewell student fraternity, you knew his mantra was that the little things and missed opportunities in days past can make the biggest difference. I remember well when he told us one anecdote of George Washington's gamble of crossing the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian garrison during the American Revolution. The story goes that a young lookout saw Washington's forces gliding across the water and reported thusly to his superior, who wrote the information on a piece of paper and passed it to a messenger. This middleman went to the officers' tent, where a colonel (I believe) was playing cards with the other officers, and passed the urgent note to him. Inexplicably, the colonel was more focused on the game and literally pocketed the note, leaving the Hessians flat-footed when the Americans landed on the shore.

Stories like that were the norm in the world of Ralph Shewell. The air in that classroom was absolutely intoxicating, simply because he was a teacher who loved what he did and who his students were. If this was the way history was, I told myself, then by heaven and earth I was going to make it my area of focus.

And to top it all, I remember "Uncle Ralph" for remaining interested in my life and those of other students beyond the classroom. When I came back to visit him during my freshman year of college, his first question was, "So how are things going with the girls?" Never mind the only way I could get a date back then was to eat the fruit of the same name. When my friend and fellow student John Graham was tragically killed after our sophomore year, Mr. Shewell and his wife Tanya were right there at the funeral.

It's a gift when someone pours themselves into their students on a consistent basis like that. It's a gift when joy and delight radiate from a teacher like warmth from the sun.

It's an indescribable privilege--one that originates from the throne of God Himself--when you find a teacher who does both, and when he views that as his true calling. To know my life intersected with his brings tears to my eyes.

When he wrote in my senior yearbook, he signed off, "Your teacher and a friend, Ralph Shewell."

Then, now, and always, "Uncle Ralph"--you will always be that. Count me eternally grateful.

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