Edward M. Hallowell
I come from an old New England family, characterized by what I call the WASP triad: alcoholism, mental illness, and politeness. I didn't get the upbringing I might have hoped for. While the various parents I had were usually well-intentioned, none of them was well-equipped for the job of being a mother, father, stepmother, or stepfather. Instead of giving me a solid foundation, a bedrock, they gave me a base of quicksand. They introduced me early on to a world of daily melodrama and crisis. In an odd way I am actually grateful for that, because it has deepened my appreciation for what others have lived through. But I got little of what children need most: a stable and caring connection. I never knew what to expect in my whirligig home.
Enter teachers. From Mrs. Eldredge in first grade to William Alfred at Harvard to Tom Gutheil during my residency in psychiatry, teachers came to the rescue. They didn't know it, but they might as well have all worn red firefighter's helmets.
Many people remember their great teachers for their inspiration. I remember mine because they put out the fire. Then they took me home to the firehouse and they brought me up. They didn't know it at the time -- they thought they were just teaching -- but in fact I was watching their every move, hanging on their every word, taking from their every gesture a meaning they never intended, the meaning, usually, a parent gives to a child.
Teachers everywhere, please remember this: you never know the good you do a student. You never know how much you may be helping, even with kids you do not think you are reaching at all. Especially with those kids. The most difficult kid, or the most indifferent student may in fact be drinking you up like a fountain of life. Particularly these days, when so many young people are not getting what they need at home, teachers can fill a void, even without knowing it or meaning to. All you really have to do is exist, and do the job you've always done.
As one of my young patients said to me the other day, "Us kids got problems. Times are tough." In fact, times have been tough for kids, at least for some kids, for as long as there have been kids. And the one lifeline that has always stretched from one generation to the next is an adult who cares -- a teacher, for example.
The connections teachers make with students save lives every day. That is the truth.
Unfortunately, the disconnections can cost lives as well.
I know kids' problems firsthand. As a psychiatrist, they are my business now, but I got on the job training as a kid. I was to find my own little hell in Charleston, South Carolina. The trouble got started when my dad, God rest his soul, went crazy and got hospitalized. Back then, in the late '40s and early '50s, psychiatry didn't have much help to offer; in fact, the doctors advised my mother to divorce my father and move on, which she did. She then married a Southern gentleman from Charleston, so off I headed from Cape Cod to South Carolina. Turned out the Southern gentleman, whom I had loved before the wedding, made me hate him afterwards. A drinker, he started to beat up my mother, which made me fight with him every day. I would lose these fights, but they would begin again each day when I came home from school and he got up out of bed. This was third grade, then it was fourth grade. My home became one of those violent, unhappy settings you read about and wince.
This was when my mother decided to send me away to boarding school. My grandmother had enough money to pay for it, so off I went. I enthusiastically agreed to the plan, not only to get away from the little shop of horrors in Charleston, but also because I reasoned that you couldn't have homework at boarding school, since you never went home!
By the time I discovered my reasoning about homework was flawed, it was too late. I was hooked by a school named Fessenden. Even in fifth grade, I vastly preferred the life I found at boarding school to the life I had at home. I could play sports every day, eat dinner without being yelled at or having to dodge thrown objects, sleep without being wakened by violence downstairs, and go to classes without wondering what I'd find when I walked home that afternoon. It may sound painful, especially to an American audience, that a ten-year-old boy should go away to school, but for me it saved my life.
Mr. Cook, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Maynard, Mr. Slocum, Mr. Fitts. These were some of the men who became my substitute parents, starting in fifth grade. Their gift to me couldn't have been simpler: they acted like normal adults. They showed up on time. They were fair. They were never drunk (at least, not around me). They appeared to be interested in me and the other kids. One of them, Mr. Magruder, the man who taught me history in the fifth grade, I still see, because he sings in the choir at the church my family has belonged to for the past ten years: Christ Church in Cambridge. But most of them have passed away, either into my memory or into whatever awaits us all.
When I see Mr. Magruder (now I somewhat uncomfortably call him Cal) walking down the aisle in his choir robes I often flash back to fifth grade. We learned Greek myths that year, among other topics. Cal -- Mr. Magruder -- also coached me in soccer. He taught me to kick with my instep instead of my toe. I've been teaching my sons Jack and Tucker that same skill. What I learned from Mr. Magruder, my sons now learn from me. A teacher, a father, the soccer ball doesn't ask who's instructing. For high school I went to another boarding school: Phillips Exeter Academy. From 1964 to 1968, that became my home. I made great friends there, some of whom I am close to today, and I found a new cadre of memorable teachers.
Don't get me wrong. It wasn't all sweetness and light. Some of the teachers at Exeter were cruel. I remember one in particular, a fatuous old alcoholic, who made it a point of humiliating me in class whenever he could, simply because my brother, who had graduated from Exeter a few years before I got there, had got drunk one day and vomited on the wife of a member of the faculty. When my brother was not expelled for this offense but just put on probation, some of the faculty never forgot nor forgave, and I became their target for retribution when I arrived at Exeter.
But most of the teachers treated me well. Some of them influenced my life forever. Fred Tremallo, who taught me English in twelfth grade, helped me believe I could become a writer. Arthur Weeks, who taught me geometry in tenth grade and calculus in twelfth, showed me I could do math well enough to do good science and go to medical school. Ted Bedford, who taught me Russian history, taught me to speak plainly. "Just say what you mean," he would tell us, "as simply as you can." To this day I gag when I hear or read someone who can't just spit it out. Ted Seabrook, who taught me wrestling, and was the man in charge in my dorm, taught me that where the head goes the body must follow. Ellie Tremallo, Fred Tremallo's wife, gave me milk and cookies when I needed them. K. Don Jacobusse, a flamboyant man who taught me tenth-grade English, turned me on to psychology by talking to us about the work of Erik Erikson and thrilled us all by behaving scandalously about campus. Henry Ploegstra, my eleventh-grade English teacher, responded to my interest in Crime and Punishment by purchasing for me a copy of Dostoyevsky's notebooks on that novel. Frederick Buechner, who was school minister back then, made me think about God more carefully than I ever had, and David Thomas, who taught me Latin, let me know, with an approving glance now and then, that he thought I was OK.
There was one teacher who became my friend but never had me in class, in sports, or in the dorm. We are still friends today. Charlie Terry joined the Exeter faculty when I was in tenth grade, and he just retired last year. Charlie and I hit it off. He helped me talk about big subjects -- like why do people suffer -- and he encouraged me in my work at Exeter. But most of all he just took an interest in me. Charlie was like a father to me at Exeter. He gave me the time of day.
Meanwhile, my true parents never had it easy. My mother finally divorced my drunken stepfather, but she then became lonely and turned excessively to alcohol herself. My dad married a woman he had met in the mental hospital. She was good to him, but I could never quite strike up the band with her. Thanks to advances in psychiatry, Dad taught public elementary school in New Hampshire for the last twenty-five years of his life, until he died at the age of sixty-four, when I was in medical school. A busload of teachers and former students came down for his funeral. Although he hadn't been able to be a real father to me, he had done for hundreds of New Hampshire kids what my teachers did for me. Dad is a hero to me now, because of what he fought and conquered, and I am devoting my life to delivering the kind of knowledge about mental health that saved him to the widest possible audience. It could have save my mother, too. Now, thanks to my teachers, I get the chance to offer to others what my mom and dad needed long ago. It's ironic how these things work out.
My dad's wife died shortly after he did, and my mom died a few years after that. My pickled old stepfather was the last to give out. It wasn't alcohol that killed him, although it should have; I think he just died of meanness. All of my parents died before any of my three kids were born. I try to tell my kids -- Lucy, Jack, and Tucker -- about their grandparents when I can. I took my kids to my dad's grave the other day. As they were climbing on his headstone, I was about to ask them not to do that out of respect for the dead, but I stopped myself and said, no, let them do it, that is as close as they'll ever come to climbing into his lap.
They have climbed into the living laps of some of my teachers, though. I remember when Lucy, our first child, was born in 1989, taking her as a baby to see William Alfred. My mentor when I was an undergraduate, Professor Alfred was one of the most beloved teachers in the history of Harvard. A playwright, a poet, as well as a scholar of old English and of Milton, Bill Alfred was also a friend to people everywhere, be they beggars on the street, actresses in Hollywood, or humble undergraduates like me. Bill and I met for an hour and a half once a week for two years in '71 and '72 -- my junior and senior years. Our meeting was called tutorial, but really it was Life 101. I asked him about everything, not just the particulars of English literature we were charged to discuss, but the particulars of all that I could think of. "Why would someone fall in love with someone like that?" I asked about some friend's romance that mystified me. "Because he likes the cut of her jib," Bill replied. That has become ever since my stock answer as to why anyone falls in love with anyone. I know, as a psychiatrist, I am supposed to formulate a more dense explanation, but I still like that one the best. "Do you really, really, really believe there's a God?" I asked during one of our meetings. "I know there is," he replied instantly. "I'm as sure of that as I am that that stove exists." A Franklin stove sat to our right. "Should I be a doctor or a writer?" I asked, in the midst of my agonizing over career choices. "You'll be wonderful at both," he said, with characteristic encouragement, "but if you become a doctor, that will serve you well as a writer, whereas if you go off to become a writer alone you might have to struggle for a while." How delicate. How true.
Bill Alfred died in June of 1999. He died in his sleep at home on Athens Street in Cambridge, the same house where we had our tutorials twenty-seven years ago, the same house thousands of students knew so well, the same house T.S. Eliot once visited, as did Robert Lowell many times, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Faye Dunaway as well. I went to Bill's funeral, held at the Catholic church in Cambridge where Bill attended mass every day. As I looked at his coffin, I thought of my own father's funeral, and I thanked God for the lives of both men.
Fred Tremallo died in January of 1999. Lung cancer took him quickly. I got to say goodbye to him a few weeks before he died. What can you say? Thanks? I said thanks, and I said how much he had meant to me, and Ellie, too, but how do you utter words that will penetrate eternity? You can't, I guess. You just hope for the best. I said prayers, and I still do. When you suffer as a child and get rescued, as I did, you may come to believe in God, as I did, but you also want to say thank you in a way that will get through, and I'm not sure I ever have. These teachers weren't in it for the thanks I gave, which is, in part, why what they gave was so good.
The love Fred Tremallo gave me he never would have called love. He would have called it doing his job. I was just one of dozens, indeed hundreds of students Fred especially influenced in his thirty-five years of teaching at Exeter. Just as I was one among hundreds that Bill Alfred had taken under his wing.
The great mentor's wing is wide.
In today's world, lasting relationships and close connections of all kinds are in jeopardy. Whether it be the experienced mentor in school and college, or the thoughtful physician in the office, or the wise counselor at church or synagogue, or even the friendly teller behind the window at the local bank, the lasting human relationship is fading, as it loses its priority in the lives of people everywhere.
We must be careful not to let it disappear. Human connections are expensive, but sometimes they are worth it. A virtual university would save a lot of money, but I could never have done what I did with Bill Alfred via e-mail.
The blessings of technology -- and they are indeed miraculous blessings -- should be used to augment and amplify the power of human relationships, not replace them. The speed of our lives should never get so fast that we have no time with each other face to face.
My teachers saved my life. But even for kids who come from stable families, teachers can -- and do -- make the difference between success and failure, happiness and chronic dissatisfaction.
Teachers and mentors of all kinds make us grow. They forge the connection people make to information and ideas, which in today's world is the key to success. They watch over people as they learn, providing the motor oil of reassurance and encouragement to combat the heat of learning. They offer counsel and advice about the entire range of human dilemmas, from petty to grand, and they offer friendship even to those who mostly reject it. They get paid very little, and they are given no fame. Their students leave them, often forget them, seldom thank them, and sometimes scourge them. They are like the giving tree.
Why don't we thank them and honor them more? I don't know. We should. As we do to parents, we sometimes forget them when we don't need them anymore.
But, like parents, they have given us a big chunk of their lives for the sake of our lives. May God bless them, now and always.