Mr. Brown was about twenty feet tall. He had to be. He was the wrestling coach. Those were the days when a teacher could lift a kid up, turn him upside down, and shake the excuses out of him and not have anyone bat an eye–the days of the Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller, where students were supposed to obey. If you were one of Mr. Brown’s wrestlers, he’d “discuss” problems with you at practice, but the rest of us were relatively safe, though nobody wanted to test him.

There wasn’t a thing Mr. Brown didn’t know. He knew about history,  sports, psychology, the inner workings of life. He knew how to run a class that didn’t suck. I thought I was learning Eastern Civ, but I was really discovering how not to fall flat on my face in life. History was simply a vehicle for learning success.

I used to think it was Gabe Kotter who made me want to teach, but it was really Mr. Brown.

He had a story for everything. He was Aesop-meets-Jack-Canfield–just when we thought we’d been successful in getting him off track, we found we weren’t. The point of his story always ended in a well-calculated Chicken-soupy lesson with a few too many grains of salt for a high school kid.  Until life hit. Then we discovered Mr. Brown was deadly accurate about everything…the world would be hard, college expensive, the School of Hard Knocks much more difficult than high school.

No high school kid’s equipped to understand life’s lessons in real time. A good teacher only hopes to entertain students enough so they remember enough key details for when it’s time to sink or swim for real.

It’s a generation later. My students are a month or two away from their rude awakening. I’m now telling stories I hope will have an impact so they can say “Miss, you were right!” like I say about Mr. Brown.

I’d have saved myself a ton of time and money listening to everything Mr. Brown said the first time. It was far more serious than SATs and class ranking.

Things Mr. Brown Said:  

1. Don’t pay $100K for college. It’s $250K now. I overspent, so Mr. Brown made sure I got a scholarship. It paid for half. Now that I’m down to my last $15K of grad loans I realize what I could’ve done with all that money. I was busy trying to outcompete the Yale, Harvard’s and Browns in my class–feeding my ego, not my mind. Competition is good, but for things that matter, not things that stroke the ego. 

2. You can turn in your homework late. It went in the bin. He probably wouldn’t look at it that day anyway. He was teaching time management and giving flexibility. I didn’t take advantage of the trust. I felt like a responsible adult. Today, I have a bin. Lower-level jobs are micromanaged. Innovation gets to breathe. The more freedom and trust I received, the more I produced and felt the passion to do more. 

3. “That’s okay.” If we came in a second or two late from the bathroom, it wasn’t a problem. We entered with respect and started class. Again, I felt like an adult–trusted and responsible. He wanted to train us to be thinkers, independent workers, and to run the show. The best bosses give their people some space. 

4. “Let me tell you about the time…” “No subject is terrible if the story is true,” Hemingway said. A little embellishment goes a long way in capturing teens. I might be embellishing right now–I should fact check this memory. Mr. Brown would say, “Just tell the story.” He had a story for everything–he should’ve written ten books. His stories opened the doors to learning things I never knew existed–entire worlds. It’s what I do today.  New things are fascinating when I dig for the story behind them. Stories are critical–they build connection. Connection and relationships–not rote learning–are at the heart of success in life. 

5. “Nobody’ll hire you unless you take three geography courses.”  Wisely assuming no one would hire a Russian historian to teach high schools, I got my grad degree in some obscure part of American history. I didn’t understand schools really didn’t want a historian at all. Mr. Brown did. We were heading toward the modern age of standardization and testing. He knew the red-tape of certification and teacher training and showed me how to be much more marketable on paper.  Knowing the inner workings of the system is often the key to success. You can’t fight the man. You have to stick him with his own red-tape. 

6. Always have a copy of the United States Constitution in your back pocket. Mr. Brown said it was important to know our rights. He never imagined my students would be able to Google their rights or Periscope a protest but when I ask kids, “Can they do that? What are your rights?” most of them don’t know. I try to fix that immediately. The surest way to lose your rights is to be ignorant of them. Ignorance is bliss, only to the ignorant.

Luckily, everything Mr. Brown said still holds true today and I listen better these days. There’s hope for me yet. If my students listen the first time, they’ll pass by me on the road to amazing fairly quickly. It’s what I wish for them.

It’s what Mr. Brown, I now know, wanted for us, too.


[photo credit: Tom Hostick]