Welcome to Horace Greeley High
September 1954. Mister Barlow did not pause for even a moment as he approached the stone building where he would begin teaching. The time for reflection had passed. Today, work was to begin. Although the building was called Horace Greeley High School for the moment, the entire school population would soon be relocated out of downtown to a patch of clear-cut land where a proper campus was being erected.
A bit of a shame, Mister Barlow thought. He liked the enormous building. It had two floors and a multitude of classrooms. There was a large gymnasium for the athletes, and a common room with a stage. The whole package reminded him of a cathedral, with its high ceilings and lengthy hallways. There was even a church next door, constructed from the same type of stone. Its bells resonated in his heart. They always did. They were a draught of elixir every morning, a call to action, a call to discipline. His students would learn that soon enough, as well. That was his first and primary goal: establish expectations – his of them and vice-versa.
A few steps out the school’s front door put him on the main street of the tiny hamlet of Chappaqua. The little village had been founded back in 1720’s by the Quakers and, even today, consisted of only one main street with its assorted delicatessens and family businesses, a train station that took commuters to and from New York City, and a healthy number of affluent homes. Although provincial in geographic terms, its plethora of wealthy citizens and its heritage more than made up for its size. The idea that he was settling into a community founded by Quakers comforted him. Its serene setting amongst the trees and creeks of Upper Westchester seemed commensurate with the Quaker way of life. After all the bad business of the 40’s, after all he’d been through himself, a Quaker-associated community (even if only in history) would be a welcome respite. Perhaps even the Demon would be calmed by the sleepiness of the town.
* * *
Principal Don Miles vigorously shook Mister Barlow’s stubby hand. It was a pleasure to be finally working for Don, for whom Mister Barlow had tremendous respect. Don was a fellow intellectual who brooked no nonsense. He only cared about education. He never hired a teacher without performing meticulous research. He traveled great distances to observe candidates in a classroom. He gathered recommendations. He did what any motivated Principal would do.
He first heard of Mister Barlow, when the applicant had been nominated for a teaching position at Greeley by Dana Cotton, the Director of Placement at Harvard. She noted in her letter that Mister Barlow, who graduated with an A.M. in Teaching in 1952, "is one of these people who tends to his knitting, is very conscientious, very hard working and very much interested in working for the best interests of students in the school and not watching the clock and having the feeling that he is being abused. There is something about these boys that either lived or worked in Maine or New Hampshire that contributes to a rather wholesome attitude when it comes to rolling up your sleeves and spitting on your hands and working."
Don didn’t stop there. He probed Mister Barlow’s employers at Hinsdale High School in Vermont. Chester Lees, the Superintendent of Schools there, wrote a glowing recommendation: "Mr. Barlow is a superior teacher. He is without question one of the best teachers of Mathematics and Physical Science that I have observed. His class standards of achievement are high. Such high standards maintained by some teachers would be a deterrent for pupils to select their courses of study. With Mr. Barlow, however, such is not the case. His pupils have the utmost respect for him and his methods. He is a keen student with a profound grasp of his subject matter. He is a throwback to the taskmaster type of teacher who at the same time is perfectly at home in a modern school setting. His personal scholarship is on the highest plane."
When Don came to observe one of Mister Barlow’s classes, he also questioned Hinsdale Principal Robert Girardin, who wrote another hymn of praise: "Mr. Edwin Barlow is an exceptional teacher. His command of that area is which he is employed is one of decided breadth and depth. He is held in very great respect by our pupils and respected most highly by his fellow teachers. His adherence to ethics of his profession is most commendable. Mr. Barlow has established himself as a student in his willingness to pursue further study at every opportunity. I would deem it a privilege to have my daughter study under his guidance and supervision. Mr. Barlow is, in every respect, a gentleman. I would dislike losing him but will offer every encouragement for his advancement in his profession."
Don wanted a superior teacher, and he had found one. Mister Barlow, like the rest of the faculty, was different from the "professional teacher" which Don loathed. There were no Teacher’s College graduates on the faculty and that was by design. If someone was hired to teach a subject, then in Don Miles’ eyes he had better be an expert on that topic. Don refused to have a homogenized faculty, where individual personalities and teaching styles were to be subservient to some arbitrary set of rules. To that end, many of the Greeley faculty regarded him as a visionary educator. The teachers were given enormous power, including the right to choose their own textbooks. They were cut loose to instruct as they pleased until there were complaints--and there were very few complaints. It took extraordinary damage to a child or the school to secure a reprimand from Principal Miles.
* * *
Mister Barlow walked up the stairs to the second floor, stopping to admire the sunlight streaming into the courtyard in the school’s center. It was in marked contrast to the utilitarian architecture of the school’s interior, all done up in industrial browns and linoleum, and smelling perpetually of dust. Surrounding that heavenly square on each side were tiny chapels of knowledge, buzzing incessantly around the structure’s eternally serene core. The Holy of Holies, he thought to himself, a private joke few would understand.
He let out a disapproving grunt when he found his classroom. He’d explicitly told Don that his desk be located at the back of the classroom. He’d discovered this strategic positioning two years ago when he began teaching at Hinsdale High. Mister Barlow had recalled his boyhood church and how, when he closed his eyes, he could feel the Lord’s words echoing through the church and through his very soul. Those were the moments where he lost himself. The kids needed to lose themselves, too. Not to daydreams, of course, but to the work.
Mister Barlow would never be so prideful as to think himself a God, but the classroom was akin a church and he, its priest. The students needed a strong voice, an authoritarian voice, a directed voice, and the less they could see of its owner, the more powerful the message. He also figured that his presence at the front of the room was a distraction to the lessons on the blackboard. Additionally, the students would feel more vulnerable being exposed in front of their peers. Therefore they’d be more susceptible to verbal reprimand and focus more on the day’s lesson, to avoid such a lambasting.
There was also an unadmitted by-product of this approach, and to staying hidden in the back of the room. It allowed Mister Barlow to disappear into the back of the room, where he could avoid the stares, and the thoughts behind the stares. It allowed him to maintain his persona of the all-powerful teacher, and not reveal the doubts within.
At any rate, he’d have to move the desk, and best that the students not see their instructor grappling with unwieldy furniture. There’d be no reclaiming respect after that, and he’d worked too hard to achieve this level of royalty. He scanned the hallway. It was empty, as he’d arrived two hours before the students would. He spread his arms wide and barreled his bulky frame against the desk, shoving it along the side of the room. The legs moaned as they scraped across the floor. He winced at the noise, but better for it to moan now, than outright snap in front of the class.
He positioned the desk so he could see the door, the blackboard, and every single seat. He paid no mind to his black tie, which had rumpled as a result of the unexpected athletics. He set his books on the desk and considered the lighting. Incandescent bulbs hung from a high ceiling.
Didn’t the architects confer with physicists before building this place? Nobody in their right mind would pair 60-watt bulbs with high ceilings in a classroom. A light’s brightness fell off at twice the rate of the distance it traveled. By the time it hit a student’s desk, a 60-watt bulb may as well be a candle in the darkness. He’d have to turn to the windows for salvation.
These confounded panes of glass were always double-edged swords. On the downside, they provided ample means of distracting his charges. Then again, the kids needed both sunlight and fresh air to stay focused. Dark, stuffy rooms could cause some to drift off beneath heavy eyelids. The ventilation was sufficient in the room, but it was still September and that meant the occasional hot day. A hot classroom was the worst. He’d hold their attention as he always did, but on those blistering days it was solely out of fear rather than interest in mathematics. He elected to open the windows and let in the breeze.
I’ll see how this bunch does, he thought.
* * *
Freshman Tom Holmes dragged his feet into school that morning, nervously anticipating high school. His white shirt constricted his neck. He wanted to open the top button, but then he’d stand out from the crowd and be a prime target for the upperclassmen. He stuck two fingers between the collar and the neck and vainly tried to stretch out the starched fabric.
He congregated with his peers in the auditorium for the opening assembly. Everyone related tales of summer vacation, desperately trying to dissipate the anxiety of freshman year amidst casual conversation. Everyone squinted and tilted their head for a look at their new teachers.
The most interesting character had a determined jaw and an outfit consisting of black tie, black jacket, jet-black hair and white shirt. He was impossible not to notice. Following the introductions and words of greeting from Principal Miles, Tom noted with astonishment that this oddly dressed man was his math teacher. He gathered his books and joined his compatriots in Mister Barlow’s classroom, for their first class of high school.
Everyone spoke in quiet voices, warily eyeing their instructor, who sat motionless in the back of the room, reading Alice in Wonderland at his desk. A few boys whispered nicknames they thought suited Mister Barlow best. "Blackie" proved to be the most popular, and the name stuck for decades thereafter.
Tom watched with astonishment as, "the classroom clock’s minute hand struck the exact moment the class was to begin, and Mister Barlow slammed and locked the classroom door--preventing six or seven students from attending this first class. He glowered at us and announced, ‘This class begins at nine A.M., not 9:05 or 9:03 or 9:01--it starts, with you or without you, at nine A.M.’. He waved away those staring incredulously and slack-jawed in the window of the locked door, as they realized they were to be hopelessly abandoned in the hall.
Then, he said seriously, ‘Some of you may inadvertently survive this year-long test of your puny intellectual capacities, a test for which you are poorly equipped and unlikely to wish becomes repeated’. We were mesmerized. We were in absolute awe. We were scared shitless and listened to his every word from that moment forward."
Mister Barlow had everyone open their notebooks, and on the front cover asked them to transcribe this dictation: "The Boy Scouts have their motto, "be prepared". We will use the same motto. This always means that our notebooks will always have sufficient vacant paper for our uses in class, before we start class. We always, further, have our pencils sharpened, our pens full of ink, before the class starts. The reason this teacher objects to our preparing ourselves in any way for work after class starts, is that the number of individuals who have the habit of so preparing themselves is always less than the number who are prepared, and therefore it is impolite for us to demand that a whole group wait for us."
The math class departed in haste at period’s end. By the time Mister Barlow’s first physics class began – at exactly the appointed hour – word had already spread not to be late to Blackie’s class. Everyone was entrenched in his seat as freshman Terry Raymond took his.
"I was one of about twenty students in Mr. B’s first physics class. I remember my first impression: manic stare; tree-full-of-owls look; strange cadence, enunciation and timbre in the voice; frequent hiss at the end of words and sentences and lips tight against his teeth. He was like a salivating pit bull. I think most of us were mesmerized, terrified and fascinated. At one point, one of us used "speed" instead of "velocity" after Mr. B had emphasized the difference. We were told to write out 25 times: ‘Velocity is a vector quantity. It has both magnitude and direction. Speed is not a vector quantity. It has magnitude only’. The next day we turned in our writing. Jason Ormond had written his out on toilet paper. Mr. B accepted the writing, noting that he had not ruled out that possibility."
* * *
Once classes finished that first day, Mister Barlow felt confident that he’d made the desired impression on his youthful congregants and firmly established expectations. His third class had also arrived early, and everyone already knew to keep their hands (but not elbows) on their desks, to speak only when spoken to, and maintain eye contact with the board or one’s notebook at all times.
Yes, his methods shocked them. Some parents might even have a few words to say about them. But his approach worked, and it was based on the time-tested theories of the Summa Theologica itself. He removed his copy of it from his briefcase, as well as Walter Farrell’s Companion to the Summa. He flipped to the page he had bookmarked regarding fortitude and read it to himself. He read it to himself before and after each year’s first class day as a reminder of his mission.
"A man must make the conquest of fear before he can begin to live. He must sustain that conquest of fear as long as he hopes to continue to live humanly. For he is surrounded, indeed, penetrated with dangers; if he shrinks from those dangers, he is forever paralyzed. The dangers will not be dissolved by his cowardly attempts to escape them".
He closed the book and nodded to himself. The kids might be frightened, but it was for the best. They might not appreciate it now, but they would someday.
The faculty meeting that took place after school was one Mister Barlow faced with dread. He disliked meetings, and today each teacher was to be assigned an extra-curricular activity to supervise. He’d known about this requirement before accepting the job and even admired Don Miles for the concept. Despite his own reluctance, he considered it unfair and lower-class to deprive the kids of supervision in activities in which he had experience. Ma and Father Don would have agreed, so he acquiesced to this bothersome requirement. He just hoped he’d be assigned something in which he was reasonably competant.
He let out an audible chuckle, stifled it, and replaced it with a sly smile. If his terrified students had only known the past of their imperious instructor! On his Harvard Placement Office transcript, following his graduation from the teaching program in 1952, he listed numerous activities in which he participated, none of which any student would associate with their own Mister Barlow. These activities included school publicity and civic organizations.
But his students would likely find it all the more bewildering to learn the activities he was proficient in directing. These included "camping", "playground", and "gymnasium activities". Oh, what laughter it would provoke for them to imagine their teacher pitching a tent in the wilderness, roasting marshmallows over a fire, and bounding through the scrub with backpack attached. But he’d done that, and more--far, far more and under circumstances he wished never would repeat. He never agreed to do a task that he could not devote himself to entirely. Anything less than complete devotion just wasn’t right, especially if it involved kids.
He’d been told that even Don had raised an eyebrow at his extracurricular experience. Had Mister Barlow not been such a forthright and ethical gentleman, Don never would have believed him. Don knew Mister Barlow well enough after the interview to know he was a man of his word. So he took him at his word when he stated in his application that, "I have had three summer’s experience in camping, which I feel qualifies me to assert as I do concerning the activities of camping, playground, and gymnasium activities. The nature of my collegiate training I feel qualifies me to assert as I do concerning the other activities I have checked. It would certainly be quite unreasonable of me to desire to be a teacher and be uninterested in the kinds of activities I have checked."
Unreasonable, indeed. It was exactly this firm sense of ethics, coupled with Mister Barlow’s teaching acumen, which made him such an attractive candidate. Mister Barlow knew that. He was not a man of pride--pride had caused quite a stir up in Heaven that one time--but even he popped a button off his vest when he read an evaluation of his work by the Executive Director of Boys’ and Girls’ Camps, Inc., two years earlier. "I have observed his work as a camp counselor with children in our camp and have found his work to be far above average. He has a very wholesome influence upon youngsters and is respected by them. I judge Mr. Barlow to be a high type of person, of excellent character, and appreciative of humor".
Mister Barlow wasn’t terribly pleased with his assignment of Junior Varsity Basketball coach, but at least it involved athletics as opposed to home economics. He had some appreciation for athletes, though not nearly as much as for a good scholar, and had always been impressed by what a person could achieve physically if properly motivated.
Supervision of the Debate Team would have been ideal – he thrived on intellectual debate – but those more interesting endeavors were given to faculty with seniority. He understood and was not bitter. Despite having very little knowledge of the intricacies of basketball, he would read up on the sport and do his best.
When he finally began as coach a few weeks later, he realized he was in over his head. He had little interest in the sport itself, even less understanding of it, and did not feel his contribution would be of much value. But like dear old Holden Caulfield, he despised phonies. So rather than fake his way through coaching, he relied on his method of classroom teaching: Let the kids be self-directed and learn self-reliance. He entered the gym on the first day of practice, his briefcase overflowing with books and papers to be corrected. He sat in the bleachers, read from a book about basketball and let the three star players lead their own practice. When the actual game came around, he let the same experts conduct the strategy. During time-outs or at the half, he huddled with the team and asked them what they thought they should do and let them roll with it. They didn’t win many games, but won enough to earn a trophy, which a beaming Mister Barlow accepted at a school assembly. He even accepted the trophy by telling the students, "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is your good friend "Blackie" Barlow speaking". He immediately won over many students, showing his sense of humor and dumbfounding them by showing knowledge of his nickname.
* * *
After receiving the JV coaching assignment, he strode out to his green Chevy in the parking lot and headed over to Mount Kisco. Don had told him to investigate the culinary delights at the White Horse Restaurant, a whitewashed building located near the railroad tracks in the center of town. He sat down at the bar. The hamburger was, as promised, oversized and delicious. He paid no attention to the juices that dripped onto his white shirt and black tie, or the splash of beer on his jacket. A fine meal. He would make a point of returning here often.
As darkness crept over town, he started up his car and drove out of town along Route 117. There were papers to correct and, with luck, still some time left in the evening to read. He drove home, his headlights winding along the road, the forests pressing up against the asphalt. Nobody knew where he lived and nobody ever would.
That was just how he liked it.