Sunday, 2 May 2010

To Bob Tupper on his 40th anniversary teaching at Holton

We were asked to send in memories of Bob Tupper, chairman of the History Department and "It's Academic" coach, by 3 May. Trust me to struggle through it at the last minute.

It's not much, but here we go...

Dear Mr T.,

There's so much to say, so much of it beyond words, and so little space to say it. But here goes - and as you taught me to, I'll start at the very beginning.

We first met when I was a 13 year old freshman, when I tried out for the "It's Academic" team - and to my utter shock, made it. Evening and Saturday practices meant that despite the fact that I was a year away from having you for MEH (Modern European History), you quickly became a huge part of my life at Holton.

Like so many good coaches - and you were a phenomenal one - you became more surrogate father than coach. My relationship with my own father was difficult and fraught, to say the least, so it was in those four years with you that I learned that no matter how difficult I was (and yes, I KNOW I was, and still am, to some extent!), I learned that I could still be safe and cared for; that an argument didn't mean the end of a relationship - that it was a chance to work things through; that 'failing' was an opportunity to learn and do better next time, not a catastrophe.

I look around me now and I see that all the men I trust implicitly, different as they are, all have the qualities you taught me to value in those four years: integrity, honesty, an ability to challenge and be challenged, a wonderful sense of humour (most especially being able to laugh at themselves), warmth, a love of teaching, a passion to make the world a better place.

So when friends say how remarkable it is that my friendships with men are as strong as they are, I tell them I had a fantastic teacher at the right time.

Luck isn't ALWAYS the residue of design.

After that first year came MEH. Having thought I was totally a science/math girl, with the odd tendency towards literature, I found otherwise. I know I didn't work as hard as I should have done, especially on those essays that had lots of red stamps on them - I can still hear your frustrated "Yes, but HOW did you get to those conclusions?" - but everyone from Cromwell to the Habsburgs to Winston Churchill came alive in that class. I will say, though, I've never used anything I learned in "The Prince".

I developed a lifelong love of history in MEH - the snapshots; the big picture; understanding how where we came from tells us so much about where we are; discovering the complex interplay of factors; knowing that things weren't always what they seemed. To this day, I visit the memorials for WWI dead in every town I visit. I'm not sure whether my historian friends dread or relish my endless questions on their specialist areas, but I do know that my friend Asta was bewildered by my enthusiastic reaction when she started talking about her childhood in wartime Berlin: "OH MY GOD. YOU HAVE TO TELL ME ABOUT IT - WE NEED TO WRITE THAT DOWN - that's SO important. Those of us who grew up in the Allied Countries have NO idea - it isn't in any of our history books!" I'll tell her to blame you and Jack Caussin for that.

Hard as I may have seemed to resist it, I learned to develop a proper argument, to challenge and be challenged - and, much to the chagrin of many of my acquaintances, to be able to tell when an argument has more holes than a fishnet. Unfortunately, I've never been able to develop the tact you showed: I've been known to gleefully say, "Wow, you could drive a lorrie/Mack truck through THAT argument!" Ok, maybe I'm slightly more tactful than THAT stamp of yours...

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of how you made a difference to me.

So, when you told me at the end of my senior year how much I'd grown, it was because you had made it safe for me and offered me the tools to do so.

You started teaching during Nixon's first term - a year after the moon landing, 2 years before he opened the door with China, during Vietnam, before Watergate, the bicentennial, Khomeini, Reagan, 9/11 - a time of psychedelic colours, flares, wide ties and a sense we could change the world. The computers we use today, mobile phones, ipods, the internet - none of these were even on the radar screen where Super Pong was developed several years later.

To quote the Virginia Slims advert of the time: we've come a long way, baby.

But I bet you still have that typewriter and those library file cards with "It's Ac" questions. Because history and tradition matter. They're the foundation on which our future possibilities are built. And that's what you and the other teachers at Holton gave us - a foundation on which to build anything we wanted.

I can only speak for myself about what a difference you made to me. But I know you made a difference to so many around me - and thus, I can imagine what a difference you made to the thousands of girls who have walked into your classroom door from the age of flares and flowers and punk, through the age of shoulder pads and big hair, through the age of hip hop and today.

There aren't words to express how incredible that is - and how your single classroom has made a difference around the world.

Oh, and one last thing: I finally understood why it was such a big deal to follow my argument through properly; why HOW I got there mattered. It was never really about the exams, was it?

It's about integrity: about what is right; what is true; what is real. It's about listening to and looking at all sides, thinking it all through, considering all possible factors, understanding your biases - and knowing that only then can you trust your conclusion. Even then, you have to be open to new information and be able to change your mind. Because once we've drawn a conclusion, we act. And when we act on the wrong conclusion, it's not just that we can fail exams; we can destroy lives - ours and others'.

In the end, like everything else you taught us and the example you gave us, it was about how to live. I'm sorry I didn't get it then - but I do now.

And so, from across the pond and with all the love and gratitude in the world, congratulations on your 40th anniversary at Holton: long may you continue to teach and know just how much you've changed our world for the better - thank you, thank you, thank you.


1 comment:

Kerstin said...

Irim, that is just so beautiful and moving. A very special teacher indeed and how fantastic it will be for him to get to hear what an impact he's made in the life of, at least one of the girls he coached and mentored through those absolutely vital developmental years when we find and hopefully enjoy our mind. (Ages 14-21 according to Rudolf Steiner) Thank you for sharing it.