Saint John's School
Home Up The Mascot

Four Stories About Saint John's
Saint John's and the Mascot - My high school comes to its senses The Genetic Curse - My most painful high school memory
Maria Ballantyne - A Simple Act of Kindness Senior Year - My Favorite High School Memory

Saint John's Pride
Houston, Texas

Written by Rick Archer
Class of 1968

First Written: June 2005
Last Update: July 2009

Saint Johns School, 1968

Forward: Looking Back on 1968

"You had to be there to understand why it was so funny."

It is April 1968.  During lunch time, the majority of the Senior Class was assembled in the Senior Room, our daily hangout.  Fan Crow, one of my classmates, was busy explaining to her fellow high school seniors the details of the amazing story that had taken place that morning in First Period Chemistry.  Fan had a dozen classmates hanging on her every word.  Fan could barely stop from laughing as she carefully related every detail.

I didn't need to hear the story since I had the privilege of witnessing the event myself. Nevertheless I enjoyed hearing Fan's embellishments as I sat in the background.  I was grinning from head to toe myself.  It was a funny story indeed! 

That is when an odd thought came to mind.  I wondered how difficult it would be to explain why the story was so funny to someone who hadn't been there. 

It is July 2009.  Over forty years have passed since the funny incident in Chemistry class.  As something of 'amateur writer', one day I decided my favorite story from high school would be fun to write about.   However, once I began to write the story, all sorts of memories came flooding in from my nine years at Saint John's.  I could not stop typing.  The next thing I knew, this story had turned into my personal tribute to Saint John's.

This story started out as an anecdote, but it turned into a memoir.  It is now a long story.

I am about to share some insights into the secrets behind my school's amazing success at creating an veritable legion of scholars.  Along the way I will explain how this remarkable school helped us develop 'character' as well.

I believe when you read my story, you will be convinced that Saint John's has developed its wonderful reputation the old-fashioned way - through hard work and dedication to the task of educating its students to the fullest of their potential.  There might be a finer school in America, but I would have a hard time believing it.


Saint John's School

How much do you know about "College Prep Schools"?  This article takes a candid look at Saint John's, one of the finest college prep schools in all of Texas.  Situated in the heavily-wooded River Oaks area in Houston, Texas, SJS is said to possess the most difficult curriculum of any school in the state.

Founded in 1946, over the years Saint Johns has carved out a well-deserved reputation as a very fine college preparatory school in Houston.  It is important to note that Saint John's has a close rival - Kinkaid, another college prep school that is located over in the Memorial area.

Saint John's is fortunate to have Kinkaid and vice versa.  The competition between these two fine schools keeps everyone on their toes.  The drive to be the best helps both schools reach their potential.  Historically Kinkaid has held the advantage in sports, but in the area of academics, Saint John's has long stood supreme.  Personally I think a parent should be pleased to have their child accepted at either school.  They are both excellent programs. 

That said, just so there is no question of my loyalty, I am deeply proud to be a St. John's alumnus.


St. John's has long served as an assembly line for National Merit Scholars.  Not only does St. John's turn out award winners on a regular basis, the school sends its many gifted students to the finest colleges in America every single year.

The standard of excellence begins with the Saint Johns Faculty.  I can say without a doubt that I greatly respected practically every teacher I ever had at Saint Johns during my nine year stay (1959-1968).  Across the board, the men and women who were my teachers were intelligent and well-educated in their own right.  Many faculty members were deeply committed individuals who took great pride in their work. 

I am not even slightly embarrassed to say I feel a reverence for many of my teachers at Saint Johns.  There are at least a half dozen men and women who have a near-mythic status in my memory for the impact they had on my life at the time.

Not only were they good teachers, many of the instructors went out of their way to take a personal interest in our lives. They became our mentors as well as our teachers.  Corny as it may sound, I can attest that these men and women were true role models. The faculty members always comported themselves with dignity.  They taught us how to behave and how to conduct ourselves as young adults. 

I will tell anyone the most important break I ever got in life was receiving my Saint Johns education. Thanks to St. John's, I came to realize that I had entered college far more prepared to succeed than my classmates.  As an adult, I have come across many career opportunities where my education gave me a strong advantage over my competitors. No matter what situation I was in, I have always known that I was better educated than anyone else in the room.  Not necessarily "smarter", mind you, but definitely better educated.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is now running the country."

As far as I am concerned, when it comes to Saint John's, nothing could be further from the truth.  I would love to see anyone from my school in charge!  Saint John's developed our hearts as well as our minds.  The men and women who graduated from Saint John's left the school well-prepared to make significant contributions in all walks of life.

Among its student body, Saint John's has more than its fair share of geniuses.   I'm not talking about smart kids.  I am talking about kids who are brilliant.

I am talking about National Merit Finalists, Harvard - Princeton candidates, the kind of people who are certain to become leaders in science, business, and medicine.  

I doubt I am alone in my respect for Saint Johns and the people who made the institution come alive for me.  There is bound to be a veritable legion of SJS graduates who would gladly sing praise for their school given the chance.

example, here is an unusual ad placed in the yearbook celebrating Saint Johns' 40th birthday.  Berkeley Powell was part of an unusually gifted class two years ahead of me.

What might appear to some as boasting, I disagree.  Surely this ad was placed as a marvelous testimony to the quality of education received at Saint Johns.  It was a perfect tribute.



Now that I have explained the Saint John's tradition of academic excellence, let me continue by saying that achievement of this magnitude is not accomplished easily.

Yes, it is true the reputation of Saint John's draws talented students from every corner of the city.  But how did Saint John's achieve that reputation in the first place?  And who is qualified to teach the best and the brightest?

During my years at Saint John's, I discovered the faculty was not only just as bright as the students they taught, they were also skilled manipulators and actors. 

When I say 'manipulators', I mean they knew just what buttons to push. They motivated us. They challenged us. They appealed to our pride. They demanded our best and found ways to inspire us to give it to them. 

When I say 'actors', these men and women played a role every day - They had to pretend to be tough, stern, no-nonsense, hard-nosed teachers as a way to maintain discipline.  It is only since I have become older that I realize there were actual human beings behind those frowns and tough exterior.  They were hard on us because that is what gifted students need.  A little fear went a long way.  But behind their stern public persona, they were warm-hearted individuals with feelings and a sense of humor just like everyone else. 

Their act worked like a charm on me.  For most of my instructors, I never had any idea just how nice these people were once they let down their guard.  Mr. MacKeith was the perfect example.  When you read the story about Mr. MacKeith later in this article, you will understand exactly what I mean.  Mr. MacKeith pretended to be this big, imposing, don't-fool-around type of guy. This gruff exterior turned out to a brilliant con job on his part. His act had me sold.  I was very intimidated by the man.  So imagine my surprise when a very unusual incident in the final month of my career at Saint John's exposed the man as a big softie. 

Above all, we knew beyond a doubt that our teachers respected us.  Rather than berate us or intimidate us into doing the work, they relied on our self-determination to produce the work willingly. 

Respect was a door meant to swing both ways.  As students, we were expected to show RESPECT at all times to our teachers.  We were to address our instructors as 'Mr. This' or 'Mrs. That'.  We were expected to say "Yes, Sir" or "No, Ma'am" without hesitation. We were expected to stand up when our teacher entered the room. We were expected to raise our hands if we had a question. We were punished for speaking without permission.  We were expected to stay in control of ourselves and behave without being reminded.  These rules were made very clear to us time and time again.

Our instructors also expected us to pay attention.  For the most part, we cooperated because we knew our teachers had our best interests at heart.  Since our teachers were so talented themselves, it was natural to respect them as our leaders.  Our trust in them made us more willing to follow their directions without a fuss.

But teaching a group of gifted and talented children like us could not have been "easy". 

But did we always follow their directions without questions?  No.  We questioned our instructors at every turn.  Why this, why that. We constantly challenged them to explain why each particular subject or assignment had value. 

Did we always pay attention?  No.  Our teachers had to learn how to make their curriculum interesting or they would lose us in a flash.

The dark side of our immense energy was that we were often very difficult to control.  These amazing teachers were saddled with the task of keeping our talent focused.  How these instructors kept such tight control over us without breaking our spirits is perhaps their greatest achievement of all.

No teacher ever tried to extinguish my questioning nature.  In fact, I was always taught to think for myself and to not take anything at face value.  I was well-known for my sarcasm and tendency to argue, but no teacher ever yelled at me.  Despite the fact that I constantly challenged their authority in all sorts of ways, their patience with me and uncommon decency always kept me guided on the right path ( Maria Ballantyne ).

Every single child at Saint John's had a bright spark within them.  Their curiosity and enthusiasm was boundless.  Their energy was overwhelming.  Their imagination was endless.  Their dreams were profound.

One way our teachers succeeded was to give us goals and then help us achieve them.  They identified interesting projects to challenge us. Then they showed us how to tackle our chosen tasks.    Best of all, they always kept their eyes on us to make sure we stayed focused.  This definitely kept us on the right path. 

They say Idle hands are the Devil's Workshop.  When you have talented children with an abundance of spirit, our teachers knew the perfect remedy - give us something interesting to do!  And that's what our teachers did - they kept us busy all the time. They were willing to test our limits and we rarely disappointed them. They quickly discovered thanks to our boundless enthusiasm, it was nearly impossible to overwork us. 


Something very important happened to me in the Sixth Grade that is relevant to this story.

You cannot be a good teacher without the instinct to help and nurture.  The student-teacher relationship is precious.  A student's progress is the greatest reward for every teacher.  Saint John's instructors had the ability to spot each student's interests and natural ability.  Then they had the ability to motivate their students to pursue and develop their natural ability.  Even better, they had the ability to hone and polish their gifted students.  Let me add that gifted students existed in abundance at Saint John's!!

I have first-hand knowledge that Saint John's teachers took special pleasure in nurturing their students because it happened to me several times. The first time it happened to me was in 1961.  I was eleven.

Mr. Powell was new to Saint John's that year. He was my Sixth Grade English teacher. I'm not sure, but he was so young that I have to believe this was his very first teaching job out of college.  However this is just conjecture.  I never knew much about him other than I liked him from the moment I met him. 

From the start, Mr. Powell had a great enthusiasm for English that he loved to share with my class. He knew so much it seems likely Mr. Powell had been an English major in college.  He possessed an exceptional gift.  Mr. Powell came across to me as a very kind and gentle man.  I was pleased when Mr. Powell took a special interest in me.  He encouraged me to write... and write... and write some more. 

One day, Mr. Powell made an unusual offer to the entire class - write a hundred page story and he would type it up.  Several kids took him up on his offer.  On their own time, they diligently began to carve out wild tales.  However, only two of us stayed the course all the way to the finish.  I was one of them. 

It's probably a good thing I didn't know how long 100 pages was when I started.   This project turned out to be a lot harder than I ever expected. 

Under Mr. Powell's guidance, I began a story titled "The Power of Gold".  It was a story about the ruthless Pizarro and his Spanish Conquistadors who terrorized the Incas, the native people of Peru, in pursuit of gold.  In their quest for Incan treasure, the Spanish discovered a mountainside temple that seemed promising.  To their dismay, they found it was filled with traps.  Now they were lost in a complicated, booby-trapped labyrinth located in a vast underground cave.  At the end of every chapter, a couple more evil Spaniards met a painful and bloody fate thanks to one of the traps.  I was thrilled!  Writing this story was fun! 

I soon found this was definitely not an over-night project.  Mr. Powell expected us to produce 20 pages a month for five months. He typed it up 10 pages or so at a time.  Each time he finished a section, he would talk to me about possible future directions for my story.  Obviously I was too young to have the skill to map out any sort of plot ahead of time. Therefore I had no idea where my story was headed.  I just took it one Chapter at a time.  So it was very helpful to have Mr. Powell force me to think about a possible ending, then put together chapters that would lead my story to the intended conclusion.

Not surprisingly, I skipped all over the place.  Mr. Powell would show me sections that were difficult to understand because I left out useful details.  Mr. Powell said I couldn't leave gaps like that.  The reader would lose interest.  He said good writing was like painting.  Sure it was fun to start with the most interesting part of the picture, but I had to pay attention to the background as well.  Same thing with writing. Did my story proceed logically?  I had to pretend I was the reader and go over my own work to look for the gaps in my explanation.  Then I had to go back and paint in the missing sections of my story to make it easier to understand. 

Mr. Powell then showed me the specific places that were thin.  So I dutifully went back and added more narrative.  However, after that, he refused to tell me where the gaps were, but suggested maybe I should go back and look.  This is how he trained me to proof-read my own material, a valuable trait.  Now I began to submit two and three sentence pages of explanatory material.  We didn't have word processors in those days.  Since Mr. Powell didn't feel like retyping entire pages, he typed up small one page inserts as the easiest compromise.  I sensed an opportunity - why shouldn't these short pages count against my overall total?   Mr. Powell smiled.  "Nice try, buddy, but I want one hundred COMPLETE pages.  These don't count."

It was truly wonderful one-on-one coaching.  I loved all the attention.  Not surprisingly, I came to adore the man. 

My story drifted like a meandering river.  It was adolescent stuff at best.  However to Mr. Powell's pleasant surprise, about two-thirds of the way in, my writing began to mature.  Tired of my Rambo-like death count, I actually began to explore themes of greed and how it makes people ruthless in its quest.  Mr. Powell noticed this change and complimented me.  Now the plot had transformed into something along the lines of "Evil Spaniards and the Journey to the Center of the Earth Meet the Treasure of Sierra Madre."  Pretty original, huh? 

However, my insight period was short-lived.
 My foray into philosophical themes gave way the same day Mr. Powell said it was time to wrap things up.  Unfortunately, I was having fits coming up with new material.  I began to panic.  Back in the beginning, any time I hit writer's block, a few more evil Spaniards would die and the story would take off again.  However I think Mr. Powell was growing sick of my carnage.  He literally looked me in the eye and said I could only kill off one more Spaniard for the rest of the book or he would stop typing!  He strongly recommended I try some new directions. 

I was really struggling now.  Trying to bring this opus to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion was no easy task.  At this point I was so desperate for ideas, some dinosaurs may have made an appearance.

It took nearly the entire Sixth Grade to finish.  However the pay-off was seeing my long-hand scribble transformed into 100 beautiful, neatly-typed pages enclosed in a simple binder.  Mr. Powell had been good for his word.  Oh my goodness, I did it!  I wrote a book!  My ugly duckling had become a swan!

I could not possibly have been more proud of myself.  It wasn't Hemingway, but it wasn't bad for the sixth grade either.  The point is that Mr. Powell had found a way to inspire an 11 year old kid to write a 100 page story!  Nor did it stop there. Mr. Powell encouraged me to continue writing.  Mr. Powell thought I could be a writer someday.

I was more than just flattered.  I was inspired!  This was quite a compliment for an attention-starved kid like me.  Not surprisingly, I worshipped the ground he walked on.  Mr. Powell had encouraged me to write and he had taught me "how" to write as well.  This is the kind of effect a gifted teacher can have on a student. 

Is it any wonder that I am still grateful to this man to this very day?

Let us not overlook something - Mr. Powell had sacrificed a lot of his free time to help me.  In the beginning, there was nothing particularly special about me or my work.  I was just some sixth grade kid he barely knew.  He had made an offer to all of us and I was one of the few who took him up on it.  However, once I answered the challenge, Mr. Powell went way beyond the call of duty to encourage me. 

Let's do some simple math.  An average page has 600 words on it.  Let's say Mr. Powell types 75 words per minute.  That's 8 minutes a page.  That works out to over 13 hours of typing.  How many teachers have the patience to type for 13 hours on some sixth grade kid's stupid story about blood-thirsty Spaniards wandering around booby-trapped caves being chased by dinosaurs?

I assume we all agree on the answer to this question.  One in a million.

Now let's follow the chain of consequences of this "million to one" event.

Thanks to Mr. Powell's encouragement, English was now far and away my favorite subject.  That summer, my bicycle and I made daily trips to the downtown library.  I joined the "Reading Club".

I became a voracious reader.  Like a good little termite, I devoured one book after another. 

They had a "creative writing" contest.  I won it.

They had a "most books read over the summer" contest.  I won that too.

By the time the Seventh Grade rolled around, I had undergone a transformation of sorts. 

I wanted to be a writer someday.  I also wanted to be a teacher.  Why?  Because someday I wanted to be just like Mr. Powell and help some kid reach his dreams.

  •  In the Seventh Grade, I had Mr. Powell as my English teacher for the second year in a row.  I told Mr. Powell about my summer reading binge.  His response?  "I am glad that you read a lot over vacation, but I would rather you show me the stories that you wrote.  I prefer you use your own brain and create something of your own.  Now go write me a story." 

    Along those lines, Mr. Powell
    was a big fan of the famous Thomas Edison quote "Genius is 1 part inspiration and 99 parts perspiration."  Mr. Powell took the attitude that a writer writes all the time.  He said if I wanted to be a writer, then start writing.  

    I took him at his word.
    Although there were no more 100-page books that year, thousands of pencils went to their death as I churned out one story after another.
  •  In the Eighth Grade, I had Mr. Richardson as my English teacher.  James Richardson was considered something of a genius.  However the Eighth Grade curriculum tied his hands somewhat.  It was his job to teach us the various rules of writing.  As a result, his focus was not so much on the creative side of writing but rather the do's and the don'ts... where to put the commas, word order, what punctuation to use in what position, etc.  Mr. Richardson was a stickler for perfection.  He wouldn't let me get away with anything!  In particular, he and I spent the entire year arguing over why it was inappropriate to use "but" at the start of a sentence.

    "But, Mr. Richardson, why can't I use "but" at the start of a sentence?"

    "Because, Mr. Archer, it shows educated people how ignorant you are.  Please use 'However' instead."

    Those were the lessons given to me by the Master, Mr. Richardson. He taught me more about the rules of writing than anyone else.  They stay with me to this day stored somewhere in obscure chambers of my mind.   Believe me when I say that whenever I am doubt as to what word to use and where, I quietly ask myself, "What would Mr. Richardson tell me do?"
  •  My Ninth and Twelfth Grade English teacher, Mr. Curran, was my favorite teacher of all time.  He had previously been my instructor for Math, but now he had moved over to English.  Ed Curran was funny.  He did the craziest things to get our attention.  Back in the Sixth Grade, Mr. Curran had turned a kid upside down.  For several minutes, he dangled the boy upside down by his ankles to show us how to invert fractions.  This kid's face was turning purple while I was learning how to divide 3/4ths into 1/3rd.  Unless you were the upside down kid, how could you not like Mr. Curran?  Mind you, the purple-faced kid became a class celebrity for his 'ordeal', so he ended up pretty happy himself.

    Mr. Curran noticed how much I enjoyed writing.  As a result, he began to write voluminous amounts of suggestions in the margins of every paper on ways I could improve.  Mr. Curran went a lot further than that.  He knew how much trouble I was having in my personal life.  He tried hard to make me feel better.  One day he went so far as to invite me to breakfast on a Saturday morning.  I told him I had Detention Hall that day.  He smiled.  I was notorious for getting into trouble.  He said, "Why I am not surprised?"  Then he added, "Fine, how about we make it lunch then?" 

    Mr. Curran wanted to tell me something.  Mr. Curran said he had never had a student before who tried as hard as I did to write well.  He thought I had a lot of talent and wanted me to know how proud he was of my hard work.  Considering I no longer had a real father, I was so grateful to him for the praise.  His words made me cry.  A lot.  I was pretty embarrassed.  Poor Mr. Curran had to sit there watching me turn our booth into a small swimming pool.  Imagine how he felt.
  •  My next English teacher, the mystical Mr. Weems, was a marvelous mentor.  I had Mr. Weems for two straight years.  Ben Weems loved to talk myths and legends.  That stuff was right down my alley.  We were simpatico from Day One.  His favorite book was Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Mr. Weems was frequently preoccupied with the theme of "heroes" in literature.  His favorite "hero" authors were Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Hemingway.  Mr. Weems showed us how these writers used the "hero theme" in much of their literature. 

    Because I was so fascinated with his ideas, my hand was in the air non-stop with questions.  Now Mr. Weems took a special interest in me.  Once every two months, he had me over to his house on the Saturday mornings I wasn't in Detention Hall for friendly arguments about his class topics.  Using papers I had written for his class, point for point we would debate my ideas on Hamlet, et al.  Mr. Weems said that although he didn't agree with everything I wrote, I definitely kept him on his toes finding the logic to dispute my conclusions.  Mr. Weems paid me a wonderful compliment.  He told me I made him a better teacher.
  •  In my Senior year, I had Mr. Curran again for English.  Despite a terrible case of senioritis burn-out that had affected my work in Chemistry, German, and Calculus, I found I had a surprising vein of energy left for English.  In my final month at the school, I wrote an eighteen page English Senior Thesis on The Graduate.  This, of course, was the hot movie of the year that had all the Seniors buzzing.  I discovered the movie had been taken from a lame 50-page paperback book.  I didn't care that it was a light-weight book.  I wanted to write about The Graduate!  Mr. Curran had been thinking more along the lines of Heart of Darkness or Wuthering Heights, but, thanks to my passion, he decided to humor me. One side benefit of my work was the opportunity to visit Mr. Curran at his home on a couple of occasions to go over my progress.  He was always such a friend to me.

    I doubt my work was particularly good, but I really threw myself into it.  Mr. Curran was at least kind enough as always to offer a compliment.  He said it was very obvious that I had tried harder than any other Senior on my project.  I think that was his gentle way of saying that I could have been more concise.  I am sure all readers of this article will understand his point. 

I have no idea if my personal story has been of much interest, but if you are still with me, I can now make my conclusion - In my experience, Saint John's instructors were always willing to go the extra mile to encourage any student to pursue his or her dreams. 

It all started with Mr. Powell.  Thanks to his one in a million gift to me, from that moment on, I tried as hard as I possibly could in every English class after that.

Then, without fail, each new English teacher took notice and went out of his way to encourage me further.

Nor was I the only one.  Many of my classmates reported similar stories of times when they felt privileged to receive special attention.

The entire Saint John's Faculty was wired in the same way - They would do whatever was necessary to help the student grow.  We all blossomed under their tutelage.



What you may not realize is that brilliant kids are not necessary well-behaved kids. We were all a bunch of spitfires, each and every one of us a potential barbarian at heart.   This school was training young men and women to be future Leaders.  This meant their entire program was designed to train us to think for ourselves.  We were not blind followers, that's for sure. We questioned authority at every turn.

As an instructor, you have to be pretty confident to take on the bright and gifted.  Not only do you have to challenge students and inspire them, you have to be able to control them as well!  There is always the underlying danger of rebellion.  One mistake and kids can turn on you in a heartbeat!

Lord of the Flies
by William Golding is a famous story about school kids who quickly revert to savagery when adult authority is removed.  This was a favorite book that we read and discussed during high school.  The consensus among all of us was the book wasn't that far from the truth.  I was positive the book was accurate.

As we talked, my mind drifted back to a troubling experience in the Sixth Grade.  That is when I learned for a fact that Saint John's students could be savage.  I saw it happen. 

Back in the Seventh Grade, I remember how sad I was when Mr. Powell, my favorite English instructor, told me he was leaving the school at the end of the year.  He only lasted two years at Saint John's. 

Mr. Powell was leaving my school because he was bitter and disillusioned with teaching.

Yes, that is correct, we are talking about the same Mr. Powell.  I always thought he met his downfall because he was too soft-hearted.  

Despite my admiration for Mr. Powell, not everyone felt the same way I did.  Not everybody is intrinsically interested in English.  Mr. Powell had assumed we all were.  He had not yet learned the importance of working us to death to keep us quiet.  Mr. Powell was big on giving personal attention during class.  I think this was his first mistake. As he went around the room trying to give students individual attention, boredom would set in and chaos would ensue.

Some of my classmates, particularly the boys, abused his good nature.  There were times during class when it seemed no one kept their mouths shut.  The talking was gradual at first, but escalated to tidal wave proportions by the end of the Sixth Grade.  It resumed in the Seventh Grade as well.

Once he lost the respect of his class, Mr. Powell was never able to regain control.  It just kept getting worse and worse.  I watched in dismay as my classmates walked all over him.  For example, Mr. Powell might be talking with someone.  Seeing the opportunity, three boys might strike up a conversation right in the middle of class.  The noise level would ratchet up.  Mr. Powell would ask them to quiet down only to have them sass him back!  They might quiet down for a moment, but the minute his back was turned, they would start it up again.

I could see their disrespect was getting under his skin.  As his classroom disintegrated into a zoo, I watched him grow more and more frustrated. 

The Mr. Powell I had first met in the Sixth Grade had been a gentle soul, the kind of person who writes poetry and studies the classics.  But in the face of the growing onslaught, he appeared helpless to defend himself.  Apparently nothing in his background had ever prepared him for verbal combat with immature kids.  The constant bickering wore down his spirit like a fast-acting poison.  By the Seventh Grade, Mr. Powell was a completely different person.  Sad to say, he had become so angry I could barely recognize him anymore. Mr. Powell had grown bitter and sarcastic. He started to raise his voice at some of the students on a regular basis.  Sometimes he even lost his temper. 

Mr. Powell simply did not know how to control aggressive kids.  These kids were my classmates and my friends, but now they were brats. I was embarrassed to see them deliberately harass their teacher.  I saw how rowdy they became and how they made his time at Saint John's miserable.  They seem to take great pleasure in getting his goat. 

I had never seen anything like this before and I never saw anything like it again, but there is no denying they had turned into bullies.  They had lost their sense of honor and self-control.  Mr. Powell had literally opened his heart to help us and had been kicked in the face for his efforts.  I remained his loyal ally to the very end, but there was little I could do stem the rebellion. 

Ultimately Mr. Powell had no choice but to quit.  How do you repair a broken reputation in a small school?  I understood why he had to go, but it broke my heart to see him get swept away.  I had lost a wonderful mentor. 

This was the dark side of teaching precocious children.  If you don't know how to control them, they will turn on you in a flash.  You don't get a second chance.  Like a raging forest fire, once they get out of control, you have lost them for the rest of the year.


I think it is important to note the deteriorating situation with Mr. Powell was a one-time exception.  The teachers at Saint John's were very effective at keeping us under control. Our best teachers were born lion tamers. They kept tight control on their classes because they knew that one slip and we would pounce. They knew when to use the whip.

One of my favorite teachers actually threw erasers at students!  You think I'm kidding?  None other than E.K. Salls, the second Headmaster of Saint Johns, used to throw erasers at students who were staring out the window in a daze.  You don't think that got their attention?  

Mr. Salls didn't just lob his makeshift missiles; he chunked those erasers with some spirit!  Mr. Salls usually hit their desk or the side of their arm, but one day his aim was off.  He nailed some girl right in the face. She had white chalk all over her face, on her uniform, and her desk. 

Actually the chalk turned out to be a blessing because it helped hide the scarlet red of her embarrassment!  

So figure this out - the best teachers had to have to a mean streak in order to be effective! 

One word more than any other captured the Saint John's ethos: Discipline

From the moment I arrived at Saint Johns in 1959, I was told the rules, the expectations, and the punishments. 

I learned immediately that the Saint John's Way meant "follow the rules". Coming from public school to start the 4th grade, I could see a big difference in class demeanor. No one spoke out of turn. No one got out of their seats without permission. No one got away with forgetting to do homework. The teacher was in complete control at all times. I was intimidated. I was also impressed.

The Whip behind the "Discipline" was Detention Hall, the ultimate threat.  Let me tell you about Detention Hall.   This was definitely a most effective source of terror! 

Detention Hall was held at 8 am on a Saturday morning. It could range from one hour for a minor violation to two hours for a major violation.

I was no stranger to Detention Hall.  In fact, one bemused instructor who pulled regular "Detention Hall" duty noticed how often I showed up in his room, so he decided to name a chair after me.  Such an honor!  In The Great Escape, Steve McQueen made regular trips to the cooler.  I clearly identified with him. From that point on, whenever I showed up, I got in the habit of walking to my reserved seat.  I wonder if it is still there.

I was an angry kid who bitterly resented authority.  Did I mention I had a smart mouth?  Sarcasm came as naturally to me as breathing.  I was known to backtalk when receiving discipline.  If I had just kept my mouth shut when someone chewed me out, I might have gotten off with a warning.  Not me.  I would start running that smart mouth and soon enough I was headed to Detention Hall on Saturday morning.

So what did I do to get tossed into D-Hall all the time?  You know what, in my heart, I think I was a pretty good kid.  I never misbehaved in class like the Mr. Powell incident.  I had a wonderful rapport with practically every instructor and never gave them a bit of trouble.  If a teacher was kind to me, I was the most cooperative kid on earth.  I would obey their every wish like a puppy dog desperate to please. 

However, I did have a bad habit of being late to class in the morning and I was out of uniform a lot (forgetting my tie at home for example).  Plus, I occasionally got caught talking in Study Hall.  Sad to say, I had a very slow learning curve in the "politics" department.  Whenever I was 'caught', I wasn't very tactful.  If I thought the rule was 'stupid', I would argue.  I am not proud to admit I rubbed some instructors the wrong way.  Because I tended to argue at the drop of a dime, sometimes I ran across instructors who simply weren't interested in debating the issue with me.  They just got out the book and wrote the ticket.

Looking back as an adult, I actually admire the Faculty for their even-handed treatment of me.  I am certain I tested their patience mightily.  You would think I would have learned to keep my mouth shut, but I was a hard-headed kid. 

I hated Detention Hall!  Think about it.  After a grueling week of studies, Saturday morning is every student's precious chance to sleep in and recuperate.  Not me.  I had to drag myself out of bed at 7 am on Saturday, my day off, get on my bicycle and make a 30 minute ride to school.  If it was raining or when we lived further away from the school, I had to take the bus.  Then it was an extra hour in both directions. 

I always had to get myself to D-Hall. One time I asked my mother to drive me over there so I wouldn't have to get up so early.  Her reply?  "You got yourself into this mess; get yourself out. Besides, I don't feel like picking you up later on." 

If I was late to Detention Hall, that earned me the privilege to come back the next week as well!  I made that mistake a couple times.  I seethed for a week about having to come back again just because I was 5 minutes late. 

There was no talking in Detention Hall.  If the Monitor caught you whispering something, you might very well come again next week until you FIGURED IT OUT.  I was busted for that offense too.  I suppose I had to learn every rule the hard way. 

And what did we do for an hour or for two hours?  Whoever assigned you to Detention Hall decided the punishment.  The merciful ones allowed you to do homework, bless their immortal souls.  They actually did me a favor. Now at least my time could be put to constructive use.  But with a smart mouth like mine, the majority opted to "teach me a lesson."   I had dumb assignments like writing 1,000 lines of "I will not talk in class" or "I understand that in the future I will get a haircut when told." 

My distaste for Detention Hall began in the Fourth Grade, my first year at Saint Johns.  Throughout my nine years at the school, I estimate I made about five distasteful Saturday trips a year, nearly once a month.  It was simply not in my nature to obey stupid rules like getting my hair cut.  Plus there was that problem with my big mouth.

In the Sixth grade, one teacher in particular decided to break me. Mr. Nixon was a well-known disciplinarian. I was a well-known discipline problem.  We quickly became acquainted.  Not surprisingly, he took a special interest in me.  I think I visited Detention Hall ten times that year courtesy of Mr. Nixon.

My most poignant memory was the time I dropped a pencil on the floor in Mr. Nixon's class.  I made the mistake of pouncing on it like a monster grabbing its prey rather than simply picking it up.  Everyone laughed at me.  Everyone, that is, except Mr. Nixon. 

"Mr. Archer, I think that little show is going to cost you."  The room got VERY QUIET very quickly.

When I showed up for Detention Hall that Saturday my assignment was to write 1,000 times "Discipline will be maintained at all times."  It took me more than an hour to finish.  No problem.  Mr. Nixon had given me the two-hour maximum. 

Did I mention how effective this was?   I may have been an angry, bitter kid with a big mouth, but I also dreaded Detention Hall with a purple passion.  No Lion Tamer's Whip could have been more effective at teaching me to keep my big mouth shut.  Just the hint of Detention Hall would shape up my attitude in a snap.  Detention Hall was the Ultimate Threat.  They had definitely gotten inside my head.  By the time I reached the Ninth Grade, I had definitely shaped up... or so I thought.

Thanks to the Beatles and the British Invasion, I decided that I preferred to wear my hair long.  That was how my four-year struggle over hair began.

This caricature of me was drawn by my classmate Lindon Leader for the school yearbook.  As you can see, I need a hair cut.  No surprise there; throughout high school I always needed a haircut.  Mind you, this was the era when the Beatles Mop Top and the Beach Boys "Surfer Look" had made long hair fashionable. 

St. John's didn't want long hair.  Therefore I had constant run-ins over my long hair.  Yes, I was quite the young rebel. 

And you know what else?  I always lost.  Idiot that I was, I would push their patience. They would warn me once, warn me twice, but I would ignore their requests to get my hair cut.  Sooner or later they would be forced to drop the hammer on me.  Now it was double-punishment.  Not only would I get Detention Hall, I still had to get my hair cut as well. Plus I had to report to Mr. Murphy on Monday to prove to him I had indeed gotten my hair cut over the weekend.  One time he decided I hadn't gotten it cut enough.  This meant I would have to go back and get another hair cut. Omigosh, two haircuts in the span of one week!  I was fit to be tied.

I spent my entire Senior year looking over my shoulder for Mr. Murphy.  I ducked when I saw him coming in the halls.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Maybe Mr. Murphy would forget about me.  It didn't work; Mr. Murphy always found me at lunch time.  So one day I brought my lunch to school.  I ate at a hidden place.  No luck, Mr. Murphy was there waiting for me at my next class after lunch.  Busted.

I fought Authority.  Authority always won.


I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night. 


1967-1968: Senior Chemistry Class for Retards

We really didn't want to be there.  There were sixteen of us.   All sixteen of us were there for one reason and one reason only:  We weren't going to graduate unless we took this class. 

The rule in those days was you had to take two science classes to graduate.  Back in our Freshman year, our entire class of 50 students had taken the mandatory Biology class.  One down, one to go.  Sometime in the next three years each of us had to take one more science class.  We could have taken a science class every year if we wanted to, but those of us who didn't like science very much had deliberately put our mandatory second class off until the bitter end.

34 members of the 1968 graduating class had voluntarily taken their extra science course (or courses) at an earlier time.  Apparently they were interested in science.  What were they thinking?  The remaining sixteen hold-outs thought these people were nuts (no problem, the other 34 made fun of us too).  There could only be One Reason why we would ever take another science course - we had no choiceWe hated science!  It was now our Senior year.  Time to pay the Piper.

Making matters worse, Senior Chemistry was scheduled for First Period.  Groan.  Chemistry was our first class of the day every day of the week.  At 8:10 AM we were supposed to be in our seats prepared to take Chemistry. Ugh.

Frank MacKeith, our instructor, fully understood the dynamics of our group. He knew we weren't in his class willingly.  We were there because we had no choice.   Mr. MacKeith acknowledged this fact on the first day of class.  We were his prisoners. To our surprise, he even suggested he vaguely felt sorry for us. 

We were grateful he showed us the same respect that a victorious officer might extend to an officer captured in battle.  Mr. MacKeith knew we were his captives, but he had promised to treat us decently if we behaved and gave a good effort. 

Very quickly we came together.  Bound by our mutual dislike of all things "Science", the sixteen seniors united to make the best of a unwelcome situation.  We the victims formed a 'mutual sympathy society', i.e. the Band of Sixteen.

We discovered we had a lot in common.  For example, when it came to science, we were slow learners.  We did not find this material interesting.  We had to learn it using sheer willpower.  Because we could have cared less about Chemistry, the details did not naturally adhere to our brains. This obligated Mr. MacKeith to go over the same material again and again and again.  We felt so stupid sometimes.  As word of our struggles seeped out to the science-lovers, they laughed and called us the "Chemistry Retards."  We didn't fight back; we deserved the title.

Although the other 34 Seniors teased us from time to time, at least Mr. MacKeith never berated us or belittled us.  He could have made fun of us or for that matter insulted us, but he chose not to.  How could we not be grateful?


Introducing Tom Wimberly

Tom Wimberly was one of my classmates.  Like me, he was a card-carrying member of the Band of Sixteen Senior Chemistry Retards.  He told me he didn't like science much at all.  But, like everyone else, he was resigned to his fate. 

Tom was a nice guy.  I liked Tom a lot although we were never close. He had the gift of a sunny disposition.  Tom was so easy-going that everyone felt comfortable around him.  The word "popular" fit like a glove and deservedly so. 

Another word for Tom was "gentle".  He didn't antagonize anyone. I never even heard him say a mean word behind anyone's back.  As one consequence of his gentle nature, Tom never got into trouble.

You see, unlike me, Tom never challenged authority.   I honestly don't remember seeing Tom in Detention Hall.  Tom could maintain "Discipline" with seemingly little effort!  I wondered what his secret was.

Thompson Temple was Tom's best friend.  The two boys had something unusual in common - they were third generation members of lumber company families.  Temple, Texas and Wimberly, Texas, were named for their grandfathers.

To Tom's credit, even though he would inherit a fortune, he was not remotely stuck up.  The Tom Wimberly I remember was modest and down-to-earth. 

The one thing I remember for certain about Tom in Chemistry class was that he was the only person able to make Mr. MacKeith laugh.  However, even though Tom and Mr. MacKeith developed a good rapport, I don't remember Tom participating much in Chemistry class.  He was one of the quiet ones. Tom would never deliberately stir up trouble; he was definitely not controversial. 

Tom remained "uncontroversial", that is, until the fateful day when something very unusual happened in our Senior Retard Chem class...

Tom Wimberly & Thompson Temple


Pursuit of the College Dream

I am fairly certain Mr. MacKeith would have preferred to teach Chemistry students who were self-motivated rather than us Chem Retards.  Although none of us could fathom why, some of our fellow Seniors admitted they actually enjoyed chemistry and science in general.  Indeed, I had heard Mr. MacKeith was very popular with the Science crowd.  These were the students who actually liked science and asked clever questions that would stimulate him on a regular basis.  Thanks to them, Mr. MacKeith could match wits with brilliant and gifted students who really wanted to learn what he had to offer. 

But not us.  The Band of Sixteen showed up for Chemistry every morning because we were told to do so.  If we refused to cooperate, then we could kiss our chances of getting into a halfway decent college goodbye.

That was how The Game was played at Saint John's.  SJS was known as a "College Prep School" for a reason - the school helped its students get into America's finest colleges.  For our entire Saint John's career, our teachers had dangled "Getting Into a Good College" as the ultimate goal.  We had been chasing this goal for a long time. 

"College" permeated our dreams, our souls. The movie Risky Business does a great job of explaining the incredible lengths a student will go to for the chance to get into a truly good school.  For years now, College had been our prime motivation. 

It was the pursuit of the almighty "good college" that served as the underpinning for our Senior Retard Chem Class.  This was single most compelling reason that we paid attention

Thanks to Mr. MacKeith, at least we were able to conduct this daily charade with a semblance of dignity.  Where he found the strength to keep pushing us to learn something we didn't want to learn is strong testimony to his professionalism.  Any teacher knows what a tough assignment it is to motivate students who are not even remotely interested in the subject at hand.  He may have had a captive audience, but he knew we had the power to tune him out.  How was he supposed to reach us?

I suppose there was class conversation, but certainly not much.  Personally speaking, during my time at Saint John's, I had always enjoyed participating in class discussions.  In English and History, for example, you couldn't shut me up.  Chemistry was a notable exception.  There were never any questions that magically popped into my mind.  There were no insights that ever appeared either.  Practically everything I learned in this class was something I had to memorize.  Could any desert be drier than this Chemistry class?   Getting me to speak voluntarily in Chem class was a tall order indeed.

I was not alone in my reticence.  Very few of the Band of Sixteen ever spoke unless asked to do so. 

Introducing Fan Crow

Fortunately for Mr. MacKeith, the Universe had given him a gift - a lovely young lady named Fan Crow.  Fan was probably the only person in the room who could have hung with the Science Geeks.  Fan went so far out of her way to make Mr. MacKeith's job easier that we secretly suspected she was 'interested in science', a real no-no for this group of retards.

Fan Crow was the only member of the Retard Senior Chem class who appeared to be trying HARD the entire year.  I was trying too, but not as hard as she was.  Every single day, Fan was present in her "committed student" role. Sitting in her spot on the front row, Fan would respond to practically anything Mr. MacKeith said or asked.  Even more spectacular, she would ask questions that invited Mr. MacKeith to explore the deeper nuances of the various subjects he covered. 

Over the course of the year, Fan became Mr. MacKeith's best student as well as his ally and his only true companion.  Without Fan, Mr. MacKeith would surely have been much lonelier in that classroom.  No one but Fan Crow ever raised a hand to ask a question.  Why would we willingly risk being drawn into a conversation that would reveal our ignorance?   Without actually discussing it among ourselves, we tacitly delegated the entire role of classroom participation to Fan.  That's what we had Fan for.  She had more enthusiasm than the rest of us combined.  We blessed her for it.

The cynics among us knew Fan would go far in life because she could fake "being there" better than any of the rest of us. 

However, I wasn't sure it was an act.  Fan seemed pretty genuine to me.  "Paying attention" is a tough act to fake for an entire year! 

I used to watch Fan Crow like a hawk.  Besides the fact that she was pretty, I watched her because I wanted to beat her in our head-to-head competition!  Out of our class of 50 students, Fan was barely ahead of me.  Mark Mendel was the class genius; none of us could touch him.  Liz Landers was a distant second.  Fan Crow was in third.  I was right behind her in fourth place for all those years.  Finally at the end I gave up trying to catch her.  At the last moment I fell to fifth, maybe even sixth or seventh, thanks to a curious "D" in Calculus in the Fourth Quarter of my Senior Year.  But that's another story.  The point is that I always kept an eye on my closest rival.

Fan was smart.  Real smart.  She entered St. John's in the seventh grade.  I had spent six years right on her tail. For years we had matched each other stride for stride, grade for grade. It was uncanny how we seemed to get the same grade on every test.  It wasn't till high school she had begun to pull ahead of me, but not by much.  I began to get frustrated because Fan was always just one step ahead of me academically.  I hung in there doggedly in case she made a mistake, but she never did. 

Deeply competitive,
I resented Fan for a long time.  That said, my resentment had nothing to do with her being "a girl." I don't recall even the most remote hint of sexism at my school.  Saint John's was light-years ahead of its time in this respect.  The boys and the girls were on equal footing.  No young woman to my knowledge ever felt compelled to be quiet or hide her brains to avoid embarrassing some boy.  My competition with Fan wasn't personal or sexist; it was all about "the grades".  Yes, I wanted to beat Fan Crow on every test we took, but I wanted to beat everyone in the room for that matter.  We had been trained to excel.  We had been trained to achieve.  Whether you approve or not, head to head competition was a major part of the Saint John's Ethos.  We were taught to care about our grades.

In particular, I was jealous of her immense social skills.  Fan was not only popular with her classmates, her teachers adored her as well.  And why wouldn't they?  Fan was always prepared, always interested, always pleasant.  As far I was concerned, her social skills gave her the edge that separated us.  We were even-steven in the brains department.  We were evenly matched in the determination department.  However Fan had one major advantage - she possessed marvelous diplomatic skills while I had practically none.  If Fan Crow had a grade teetering halfway between an "85" or a "90", she would probably get the benefit of the doubt based her amazing rapport with every instructor.  Not me.  Although I had a good rapport with most of my instructors thanks to my work ethic, there were also some I didn't get along with.  If one of my grades might have been affected by how fond the teacher was of the student, Fan definitely had the edge on me (e.g. witness my "D" in Calculus). 

Fan proved to be a blessing for Mr. MacKeith.  She gave him someone with a brain to talk to during class.  For example, whenever Mr. MacKeith went into Blackboard Mode, Fan and Mr. MacKeith kept up a non-stop dialogue while the rest of us dozed.  Except for me, that is.

I didn't doze. That constant dialogue between Fan and Mr. MacKeith was always a source of fascination for me.
Speaking of those "diplomatic skills", the cynics among us thought she was a bullshit artist.  I still hadn't figured out whether she was sincere or simply the consummate actress.  I was a moody kid, up and down, up and down.  Not Fan.  She was perky!  How could anyone be so Mary Tyler Moore-cheerful all the time?  Was she really that nice?

Finally about three-quarters of the way through my Senior year, I decided to let it go.  After all, Fan was single-handedly occupying Mr. MacKeith's attention.   I was in awe of her positive nature. Why not give Atlas some credit?  Thanks to Fan's heavy lifting, she made the class more bearable for all of us.

Besides, thanks to my serious case of "Senioritis", I had lost my enthusiasm for the chase.  It was obvious I was never going to catch her.  This girl was a "Closer" par excellence!  Unlike me, there would be no staggering to the finish line for her.  Fan was going to finish her Senior Year in style.

Although my hyper-competitiveness back in those days created envy on my part for Fan's success, deep down I liked her.  She was never once mean to me.  If I was going to get beat by someone, Fan would not dream of rubbing it in.  That made her eventual superiority easier to bear.  She won me over.  I became a member of the Fan Crow Fan Club. 

Go Fan Go!


Introducing Frank MacKeith

Mr. MacKeith was our noble Senior Retard Chemistry teacher. I liked Mr. MacKeith. Actually, I liked him a lot.  A huge bear of a man, just his size alone made Mr. MacKeith an imposing figure as he stood in front of the blackboard going over his equations and calculations.  He looked like an ex-Marine.  None of us ever messed with him.  Ever.

Mr. MacKeith was a good teacher. He somehow managed to make Chemistry interesting for me.  Well, kind of interesting.  How he did it, I don't know, but I found myself paying attention without too much of a struggle.

Considering how much I disliked Science in general, that was quite an accomplishment!  One reason I respected Mr. MacKeith was due to how much he cared about Chemistry.  He really loved his subject.  He did everything in his power to explain to skeptics like me why Chemistry was important.  I never had any doubt Chemistry was important; it just wasn't important to me.  But thanks to this man's unusual charisma, I learned it anyway simply out of respect for him.

I had the fortune of running across an article about Mr. MacKeith in one of my yearbooks.  It was written by a Saint John's student named Gail Wandel, obviously a Retard Senior Chemistry student in the class one year ahead of mine.

Gail wasn't any more interested in Chemistry than I was, but, like me, she was pleased to discover Mr. MacKeith could make the class tolerable.  Along the way, Gail became impressed by the man's singular decency.  I would like to share Gail's story with you since she captures the essence of Mr. MacKeith so perfectly. 

A Story about Frank MacKeith
Written by Gail Wandel Hendryx, Class of 1967

"The rather large man stood in front of the class, arms clasped tightly, toes pointed out. He shook his head with a smile and made the request, "People, people, let's get down to work."

He has just exposed twenty wondering… and wandering… minds to the magic of the periodic tables, neutrons, electrons, protons, and ions. Many of those wondering minds were merely wondering what he was talking about. He persevered, pacing before the class, explaining about those different electron orbits, and how krypton was a gas rather than the birthplace of Superman. Perhaps because chemistry is a more foreign field of study than say history or even biology, he was a picture of patience.

He would go slowly (just fast enough to finish the weekly chapter) and answer all questions of those who understood enough to ask a question. By Thursday, we would feel satisfied that something chemical had worked its way into the minds of we the non-chemists.  But was it enough?  Consequently every Friday morning without fail he would arrive early to find a large portion of his class assembled on the terrazzo steps outside his office above Study Hall 70.  It was tutorial time for the turtles among us.  After getting coffee and lighting his pipe, he would patiently answer questions from the student chemists who had just discovered a mystifying world while studying for the weekly Friday quiz.

I can still remember on Friday feeling particularly panicked as the morning bell was about to ring, madly asking questions, and hearing the soothing comment, "I wouldn't worry too much about that." He was really nice.

And he was brave, too, living through labs which bristled with dangerous items such as Bunsen burners, glass beakers, and distillers, all manned by students who sometimes had trouble balancing themselves on those lab stools. He would move from lab team to lab team, explaining results or kindly explaining that a 50% error margin was not an acceptable result.

Mr. MacKeith was truly a kind man who smilingly taught his students about a lot more things than chemistry."



Why did Mr. MacKeith succeed where my Sixth Grade teacher Mr. Powell failed?  Mr. Powell had a big advantage. He taught English, a subject far more interesting to most students.  Mr. MacKeith on the other hand was stuck with an unpleasant uphill struggle known as Chemistry.  Yet Mr. MacKeith held our attention while Mr. Powell did not.  

What was his secret? 

Mr. MacKeith had total control of his class.  It all started with our respect for him.  He made it clear he had a job to do - teach chemistry - and we had a job to do - learn chemistry - and that we all needed to work together.  Mr. MacKeith knew we weren't interested in Chemistry.  That was okay with him just as long as we did the work anyway.

Mr. MacKeith said that in life, sometimes you are given assignments that aren't "fun".  To succeed in life, somewhere along the line you need to develop the self-discipline to tackle the project anyway and master it. 

In other words, Mr. MacKeith had a "Zen" approach to learning Chemistry.  He challenged us to learn something we weren't interested in to prove to ourselves we had self-discipline.  We were elite students.  He said we were capable of conquering a task even if we weren't interested in it.  Our self-discipline was a trait that ultimately separates the losers in the world from the winners.  In other words, he appealed to our sense of pride.  If we were to succeed in college, this was the chance to prove to ourselves we could overcome any challenge.

He said he respected our achievements.  We were smart young men and women who had shown we deserved to attend Houston's most challenging school.  This was not a school for weaklings.  And now it was our Senior Year.  Although we could mail in our effort and still make it to college, he expected us to do better than that.   He wanted us to show him one last time why we deserved to attend a school with so much academic prestige.  We were Saint John's students!

Mr. MacKeith had thrown down the gauntlet.  Senior Chemistry was to be a test of our character.   I swear I had goose bumps.  "Win one for the Gipper" could not have been any better than this speech.


"Leave us not play" was Mr. MacKeith's favorite expression.  Two words described Mr. MacKeith: NO NONSENSE.

Mr. MacKeith was all about Chemistry.  When you came into his room, he didn't want to be your friend or your buddy.  He wanted you to be quiet and listen.  There would be no chummy small talk, no kidding, no jokes, no anecdotes, no gemutlichkeit (German for warmth and camaraderie).  We knew that Mr. MacKeith was a warm man in private, but this was a Classroom, not a Rec Room.  In essence, there would be no fooling around.  "Leave us not play" meant we were expected to conduct ourselves as mature students, not silly teenagers.  We were Seniors now.  So act like it!

Mr. MacKeith seemed "stern".  The odd thing was he never actually did anything that was "stern" that I can remember.  He didn't have to!  Discipline was never a problem in his class.  He never once chewed a kid out or did something as preposterous as launch an eraser.  Mr. MacKeith was so formidable, none of us actually ever wanted to find out if he had a mean streak.  We didn't test him.

Mr. MacKeith could also be taciturn.  Isn't that a great word?  It means, "Habitually disinclined to talk."  Actually, Mr. MacKeith expressed himself very well, but he did not engage in small talk.  He always stuck to "business".  He made it clear that there are times to "play" and times to "work".  "Leave us not play" meant that it was time to settle down and get to work.  As you can guess, he had total control of his classroom.

In retrospect, how on earth such a simple slogan could be so effective escapes me, but it just froze us in our tracks!   You see, at all times we wanted desperately to have fun.  Chemistry wasn't fun.  We wanted to tease, have mirth, fool around in chemistry lab, blow something up, laugh a little. 

That wasn't going to happen on Mr. MacKeith's watch.  We were going to pay attention to the task at hand.

Yes indeed, we paid attention strictly due to Mr. MacKeith's indomitable ability to keep us focused on chemistry.  How did he do it?  How did he manage to keep sixteen teenagers stay focused on something they weren't interested in five days a week for an entire year without resorting to threats and fear tactics? 

We were Seniors, for crying out loud.  We only had one foot left in the door.  Furthermore, we were all completely convinced that we would never use this Moron Boron stuff again in our lives (and we were right!)  We didn't want to be there, but we paid attention anyway.  We weren't brilliant at science, but we hung in there anyway. 

As slowly as the glacier moves towards the sea, over the course of the year we actually learned chemistry.  I admit that not much of it stuck, but we did learn it for a little while.  Even I have to admit there are at least a few concepts that stay with me to this day.  That is amazing.  Mr. MacKeith was amazing.  He challenged us every day to apply ourselves whether we liked the material or not. 

And when we invariably felt short of his expectations, he reminded us to begin concentrating again with his magic slogan, "Leave us not play".   


As the picture indicates, a lot of Chemistry involves mathematic equations.  Once Mr. MacKeith launched into his "Blackboard Mode", you might not see his face again for five or ten minutes.  I am not kidding.  Once Mr. MacKeith put his chalk to the board to begin to the math part of each Chemistry class, he often spent the entire time facing the blackboard with his back to us.  He would lecture to us while he kept adding a steady scribble of numbers or concepts on the board. 

Even though his back was turned, Mr. MacKeith assumed we were respectfully paying attention.  And usually we were.  But in case one of us let our mind wander, we had our secret weapon - Fan Crow - to keep Mr. MacKeith occupied.  When Mr. MacKeith went into Blackboard Mode, he and Fan were often the only people doing any talking at all.  They developed this amazing rapport.  While the rest of us watched in bemused silence, the two of them would talk back and forth. 

Mr. MacKeith would have his back to us the entire time. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us were so quiet we could have all snuck out and he would not have known it.  Now that I think about it, that would have been the perfect joke!  Except that we didn't joke in his class.  "Leave us not Play."

At some point, Mr. MacKeith would turn around to comment or to re-enter lecture mode.  He was always kind enough to turn around s-l-o-w-l-y.  I think he actually preferred not to catch people napping. 



Let us revisit the question of why some people succeed where other people fail. I have a personal anecdote that further validates Mr. MacKeith's skill as a teacher.

At the same time I was in Senior Retard Chemistry, I was also taking Calculus.  Historically, when it came to Math, I was always faster than a speeding bullet.  You could just pencil me in for an "A" and forget about it.  Math was my groove.  But Calculus in my senior year proved to be a very painful exception to that rule. 

I did not like my teacher at all.  I don't even remember why not except that every moment spent in his class was excruciating boredom.  Nevertheless, for the first three Quarters of the year, I had gritted my teeth and forced myself to pay attention.  Heading into my Fourth Quarter, I had received a "B" three times in a row.

The final Quarter was my downfall.  Once I was accepted into college, a frightening condition known as Senioritis set in. It was like someone had let all the air out of the balloon.  I discovered my vaunted self-discipline was gone. I could NOT force myself to care about Calculus any longer.

My Calculus teacher made that math class so painfully boring that I literally stopped listening.  Once Senioritis clicked in, I spent the last two months in his class daydreaming about playing basketball.  The Romans could dream about the Elysian Fields, the Arabs could have their 72 virgins in Paradise, the Vikings had Valhalla, but for me, basketball fantasies were my sanctuary.  That is where I went to escape the tedious boredom of this class. I won a lot of games that year with last-second shots in my mind.


I had never before in my life felt so much disrespect for an instructor.  Thanks to the gifted faculty at Saint John's, this was a totally new experience.  But it had to happen sometime, right?  I remember that I at least did my homework.  I was too much of a stickler for doing homework to fall apart completely.  Mostly I displayed my resentment by daydreaming in class.  However, by the bitter end, I even stopped studying as well. I was so disgusted, I did not even study for the final exam.  I fought a major struggle in my mind, but ultimately I could not force myself to do it. 

I paid a major price.  When I got my final report card I was stunned to discover my instructor had dropped me all the way to a "D".  This was the only grade I ever received below a "B" in my entire nine years at Saint Johns.  It had been an impressive record up to this point.  9 years of Honor Roll.  36 grading periods, 36 consecutive quarters on the Honor Roll List which, incidentally, was always posted for everyone to see.  Five classes per quarter, 179 A's and B's.  And now a 'D' to close out my Saint John's career.  Unlike my constant nemesis Fan Crow, I would not be going out in style.

I seethed with embarrassment and resentment at this smirch on my record.  A "C" I would have accepted; I knew I hadn't tried in my final quarter.  But I didn't deserve a "D".   To this day I believe he gave me this grade as punishment for my lack of respect.  We graded on a number system.  First Quarter: 80.  Second Quarter: 80.  Third Quarter: 80.  Fourth Quarter: 65.  Simple algebra dictates that my score for the final quarter was a "40".  Yes, I was bad.  No, I wasn't that bad.

To drop me all the way to a "65" without any warning could mean only one thing - he disliked me as much as I disliked him.  This grade was personal.

Despite this huge blow to my self-esteem, there was no real negative effect.  Despite the "D", I still graduated from Saint Johns "with distinction."  Despite the "D", I still kept my college scholarship.

As the Senioritis plague reached epidemic status throughout my entire class, there was a vague suspicion that circulated among us that we could fail a course or two and it would still make no difference.  Like the good little rebel I was, I had actually gone to the trouble of using Calculus to prove our suspicions were basically correct.

Meanwhile, I respected Mr. MacKeith so much that I continued to try in his class even though I didn't have to. 

Even though I had absolutely no interest in science at any time for the entire year, it was a testimony to Mr. MacKeith that I actually paid attention all year long. He had the ability to keep me involved in a subject I did not like.  Meanwhile another Saint John's instructor lost me completely in a subject I had once excelled at. 

I paid Mr. MacKeith the ultimate compliment - I studied for my Chemistry Final.


Senioritis, Peggy Sue, Periodic Tables, and Redox Reactions

It was now late April 1968. Every one of us had been accepted into college. We are very near the end of the long road.  

It is important to this story that you recall the importance of "accepted into college".  Once the valued external goal of "getting into college" had been removed as a source of motivation, we all began to fall to pieces.  We believed this meant that no matter what we did (or didn't do) from here on out made no difference.  This was a strange new feeling indeed.

When the external reasons to "work" are removed, what is left to keep a Saint John's Senior motivated? 

You do not succeed at Saint John's without a certain type of toughness known as Self-Discipline

Every student at SJS develops the ability to study even when he or she doesn't want to. 

More than anything else, that vaunted virtue of self-discipline explains why nearly every St. John's student succeeds later in life.

Without that inner discipline, Saint John's would have weeded us all out long ago.  Yes, Saint John's went the extra mile to nurture its gifted students, but I don't recall any hand-holding for the kids that didn't do their work.  In fact, my gut feeling says this school was willing to allow its students to fail the same way the Spartans threw weakling children to the wolves.  Over my nine year stay (1959-1968), I recall a dozen different kids who either mysteriously left school in the middle of the year or didn't return the next year probably because they weren't invited back. 

On the other hand, we never seemed to lose our best students.  And that included my comrades in the Band of Sixteen.  The Band of Sixteen may not have embraced Chemistry to our bosom and it is true we teased ourselves about being 'retards', but don't think for a moment we were academic weaklings.  For starters, there were several Honor students in that class.  Furthermore, there was not one person in that room who was not as smart as a whip. 

We were St. John's Seniors - the SJS equivalent of Darwin's Survivors of the Fittest - and proud of it!   We were the ones left standing.  We all possessed SELF-DISCIPLINE.  Otherwise, we would have been gone a long time ago.

Now however, in April 1968, the Band of Sixteen was in trouble. We were all having a hard time hanging on to the incredible self-discipline that had driven us to study all those years the same way the Spartans perpetually trained to fight.  Senioritis had rendered us virtually helpless to force ourselves to study with any enthusiasm.  It was virtually impossible to concentrate on things that were totally unimportant because all our external reasons to concentrate were gone.    We had reached our goal.  The long climb was over.

Now we wanted to coast for a while.  Our feet involuntarily left the pedal. 

Mr. MacKeith had almost finished us off about a month earlier with an assignment I still detest to this day.  He had asked us to memorize the complete Periodic Table of elements.  This meant we had to memorize the names of the elements and their atomic weights.  Omigoodness this was boring!

We protested mightily.  We explained to Mr. MacKeith that we really didn't NEED to memorize these tables because if we ever really had to know the atomic number for Gold, we could just look it up (#79 by the way.  Google, 10 seconds).

But Mr. MacKeith had insisted.  Fortunately, since none of us had yet received our college acceptances, we were still locked into our "work, study, get ahead" mode.  So we knuckled under and memorized the chart.  It was a long chart.  It took a lot of time to memorize.  I hated this assignment.  We all hated this assignment.  Maybe even Fan Crow hated this assignment.  Once we took the test, we all promptly forgot everything we had memorized  the moment we walked out the door.  This was the low point of the year.  Or at least we thought so at the time.  

One month later came the topic that broke us: Redox Reactions.   Ugh.  Just the thought makes me shudder.

In the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, Peggy Sue returns to High School 30 years after she has graduated.  One day she hands in a test paper with nothing but doodles on it. Peggy Sue explains to the stupefied professor that she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt she will never have any use for this information in the future, so why bother studying for it in the first place?  

That is EXACTLY how we felt about Redox Reactions. 

Furthermore, since the Periodic Table disaster a month earlier, there had been an important new development in our lives - We had all been accepted into college.

This changed everything.  Since none of really "liked" Chemistry in the first place, our fingers barely had the strength to open the book, much less turn the pages, much less pay attention in class.  And it wouldn't have done any good any way because our brains had shut down and so had our ears and eyes.   No further Chemical knowledge shall cross these portals!

To this day, I freely admit m
y understanding of Chemistry is pretty limited.  When the car battery fails, I replace it.  When the flashlight doesn't work, I get new batteries.  And if I am attracted to a pretty girl and she is attracted to me, I pray for a chemical reaction.  Other than that, nothing else from Senior Chem sticks.

Out of curiosity, in 2005 I actually dug out my old Chemistry Book from my Senior Year.  Steeling myself, I peeked at Chapters 18 and 19 on Redox Reactions

I was pleased to discover some scribbles in the margin.  This at least confirmed my eyes had once crossed this page. The other thing I discovered was no surprise - as I read the entire chapter, I realized to my chagrin I didn't remember a single thing about this subject.

As I read further, I was appalled by an even greater discovery.

Not only
did I not remember a thing about Redox Reactions, I didn't remember a single thing from this entire book!

Now that's scary.  However, reading the book did remind me how hard we tried to get Mr. MacKeith to stop making us memorize this stuff.



"But Mr. MacKeith, why do we have to learn this stuff?  We're never going to use any of it!"

We all suspected we had devoted an entire year to learning something we would never use for the rest of our lives.  And we were right.  We were absolutely right.  I guarantee my brief exposure to Redox Reactions has not once benefitted me later in life.

All year long we kept asking Mr. MacKeith, "Sir, why do we have to memorize this?  If we ever need to know about it, we could just keep this book and look it up!"

Do you have any idea how irritating our constant whining must have been for Mr. MacKeith?  It would be the same thing as having five kids in a car whining for ice cream all the time.  I wonder how many times he thought to himself, "Shut up and give me some peace!"

The interesting thing is that I believe Mr. MacKeith secretly agreed with us.  Although I have no proof, how could he not know that this material had little practical value unless you intended to enter a profession that required a science background? 

Looking back through adult eyes, it is painfully clear that some of our complaints were legitimate.  We would never use this stuff for the rest of our lives.  What about the countless hours we wasted memorizing the Periodic Tables?  What a pathetic waste of time... rote learning and regurgitation.  yuck.

I confess as I wrote this story, I really wanted to rub my genie bottle and have Mr. MacKeith pop out just so I could argue with him some more about the utter futility of making us memorize stupid stuff. 

Then it dawned on me - strong-willed kids like me had complained to my teacher all year long about learning Chemistry.  And not once did the man ever lose his patience with us! 

He let us gripe, he let us groan, he let us vent, he let us get it out of our system and he smiled patiently the entire time.  Then he went about his business and gave us our next assignment.  We might grumble, but we always did what he wanted us to do without having to be threatened.  The guy had our number.  Mr. MacKeith was a very impressive teacher.

We followed his orders even when we didn't want to.  Not once did we ever rebel.  Not once, that is, until that fateful day...

Apathy and Pride Don't Mix

It is Monday morning in late April, 1968.  Friday, three days ago, Mr. MacKeith had given us a Chemistry Test on the unpopular subject known as Redox Reactions.  Today, before class begins, we whisper among ourselves. We learn that no one thinks they did very well.  No one is happy.  In a couple minutes, we will review the results. 

The subject of Redox Reactions had come at the worst time. Not only was this subject BORING beyond belief, but our Band of Sixteen had just begun the countdown to Graduation.  We were little more than Zombies.  Thanks to acute Senioritis, we had started going through the motions and counting the days.  We wanted to get this awful subject over with and get on with our lives.  Can't they just hit fast-forward and let us go to college NOW?

It had been getting harder and harder to concentrate on Chemistry with our brains already relocated to college.   Memorizing the Periodic Tables had been tough enough, but these Redox Reactions had finished off any remaining self-discipline still left in the tank.  One reason we hated Redox Reactions is they involved highly intricate math that none of us wanted to fool with.  Our idea of chemistry at this point was how much bourbon to mix with the coke at the upcoming Frat Parties.

Today even Mr. MacKeith has a frown.  This is very unusual.  We know we aren't a particularly swift group when it comes to Chemistry, but typically Mr. MacKeith is upbeat and unusually patient with us no matter how poorly we do.  Not today. Mr. MacKeith is clearly unhappy about something.  Our dread is ratcheted up.

Mr. MacKeith begins the lesson by saying the overall performance of our Band of Sixteen was very poor.  He says there are usually some bright spots in the dark miasma, but not for this test.  In particular, not a single student in the class had gotten Problem 11.  This is a bombshell.  We are stunned.

He repeats this again for effect.  Not one of us has gotten Problem 11 right.  He stares at us for a while.  He says nothing, letting the import of his words sink in.  This gesture gives us ample time to ponder our collective failure and general unworthiness.  We can tell he is disappointed in us. 

Mr. MacKeith looks us over very carefully.  In his usual no-nonsense manner, he says the overall performance on this particular test was not up to our usual standards.  This is the first time all year we have seen him like this.  As usual, he is careful not to embarrass us individually or to raise his voice and chew us out.  His perpetual decency prevents us from feeling indignant as a way to evade responsibility for our general failure.  Instead, it allows our guilt to kick in.  Now we all begin to feel bad because we have let our noble teacher down.  Maybe we have even let ourselves down.

Shoulders sag.  The mood is very somber.  No one, not even Fan Crow, our leader, has a word to say in our defense.   We all know quite well that "Senioritis" is behind this weak performance, but we doubt Mr. MacKeith will accept this as a legitimate reason.  We each knew in our souls we hadn't tried very hard for this test, but we didn't realize everyone else had decided to do the same thing!  It is very embarrassing to realize every single one of us had chosen to mail it in for this test.  We all hang our heads in shame and try to disappear in plain sight. 

There is not one shining light among us.  It is like getting beat 50-0 in football... it is a collective failure.

Let's face it, we had gotten our butts kicked because we didn't like this particular subject in the first place and because we figured it wouldn't hurt to take one day off for the first time all year.  However, today we are embarrassed.   None of us expected that every single person in our entire class had decided to be apathetic at the same time.  However, in retrospect, it didn't surprise us either. This was a crummy subject and we didn't care anymore.  Since the external threat of not getting into the college of our choice had been removed, what difference did it make how we did on this test?  

In sports, teams that are out of the running go in the tank all the time.  Why couldn't we take a test off once in a while?   This performance was shameful, but it would not change the outcome of our lives one ion, pion, meson, or boson.  We have been accepted into college!!   That is explanation enough.

Nevertheless, as we ponder the results of the test, to our surprise, we discover we still have Saint John's Pride

We could never have gotten this far by not caring.  To our dismay, we now discover there is enough academic guilt left in each of our souls that Mr. MacKeith's disappointment can still reach us. 
As Mr. MacKeith hands out our tests, we cannot meet his eyes.  Out of embarrassment, we stare down at our desk or look out the window.  What we are really mad about is that no one covered for us. If just one person had studied, the rest of us could spend the morning praising them for their exceptional effort.  No such luck.  We all screwed up.

"All right, Students, let's review the test." 
With a big sigh, Mr. MacKeith moved over to the blackboard.  He was preparing to enter "Blackboard Mode".  He would now take us through the test one painful equation at a time. 

A witty professor would have said, "Let's revisit the tragedy" or "Let's begin the Post-Mortem" or something equally funny to break the tension. Not Mr. MacKeith.  Sarcasm and gallow's humor was not his specialty.  He was no-nonsense, no frills, no bells and whistles, just stick to the facts. 

We didn't resent Mr. MacKeith or blame him for our collective flameout.  I never heard one bad word about the man. We disliked Chemistry, but we liked Mr. MacKeith. All year long, he made this tedious subject bearable.

I admired him for the way he embraced his beloved Chemistry. I imagine our lack of effort on this particular test had aggravated him personally, but he would never chew us out.  I for one appreciated his mercy and I am certain the entire Band of Sixteen did as well.  Judging from his somber tone, our weak performance had hurt him.  It wasn't his fault; his team had quit on him!  But knowing Mr. MacKeith, he undoubtedly felt personally responsible for our failure and it grated on him.  Feeling wounded, a less noble man might have punished us.  He would have shamed us and rubbed our noses in the disgrace.  Not Mr. MacKeith.  He was too decent for that.

As Mr. MacKeith began to review the cursed Redox Reaction test, every boy and girl in the Band of Sixteen inwardly groaned.  Can't we just throw the test away and be done with it?  This felt like the academic equivalent of a torturous walk across the desert without water. 

We were not looking forward to this...


Mr. MacKeith Goes to the Blackboard

Mr. MacKeith turned his back to us as he began doing the mathematics of the chemical equations on the board.  Usually when Mr. MacKeith turned his back, we continued to pay attention, but not today. Something was wrong with all of us.  We had lost our center of gravity.

Almost immediately the class began to stare out the window and visualize touch football games, frat parties, late night bridge in the dorm, pizza and beer for dinner every night, and freedom from our parents. 

From my vantage point in the back row, I noticed that many of my classmates had begun to enter various states of suspended animation.  Most of the boys were leaning back in their chairs. Some were doodling, others were twiddling their fingers.  A couple of the girls were doing their nails. 

This was out of character for our Group of 16.  Angry at ourselves, we dealt with it by being disrespectful.  We were showing the world our defiance.  We don't care any more!

Two boys actually had their heads on the table.  Now that was brave!  We sat two at a table. They were counting on their tablemate to poke them in the ribs when it was time to pay attention.  Actually, they were pretty safe.  Today Mr. MacKeith was so engrossed in his work he never bothered to check on us.

As Mr. MacKeith scribbled away at the board, no one said a word.  No one wanted distract Mr. MacKeith from his reverie because then we would be forced to talk about this test again.  yuck.  No one wanted to talk about this test.  We preferred to forget about it. 

There was a rebellion going on this morning, but it was definitely a QUIET rebellion.

Now was the time when Fan Crow would ordinarily keep him company.  However today even the loquacious Fan was quiet.  Something was definitely wrong on Redox Reaction Monday.  You could feel it in the air.

With Fan in the front and me in the back, it was easy for me to stare at Fan in amazement - she was not saying a word!   I couldn't believe it.  I had never seen her this quiet before. She looked a bit whipped herself.  Was it possible the incomparable Ms. Crow was suffering from Senioritis too?  Maybe she really was human with all the associated frailties.  I decided she too had taken the test off.  Now she was mad at herself.  Join the crowd.  Fan was used to perfection, but today she had fallen back in with the pack.  That had to sting her pride. 

Oddly enough, while the majority of the class daydreamed, I was paying attention.  My self-esteem was fairly intact.  Although I had missed Problem 11 like everyone else, overall my score was acceptable.  This particular test was closer to 'algebra' than to chemistry.  What little I can remember is that our job was to balance some elaborate equations.  I was good at algebra.  The problems weren't easy, but I enjoyed this kind of challenge; it was the memorization that I hated.

I was especially curious about Problem 11, the one everyone had missed.  As I studied Problem 11 on my paper, I couldn't see where my math had failed. There was no obvious error in my work.  It really bugged me. 


For the first time in a while, Mr. MacKeith turned around. I suppose Mr. MacKeith had decided eye contact was necessary to announce it was time to go over Problem 11.  He reminded us this was the problem not one of us had gotten correctly. At this announcement, the entire group began to stir for the first time. 

Sixteen Saint John's Seniors had taken a swing at it, but not one of us had connected.  We shook our heads in disbelief.  Not one of us had gotten it right?    Even Fan Crow, our single shining light, had failed to rescue our collective honor.  Judging by her frown, she was still upset with herself.

I was mad that I hadn't gotten it either.  It would have been nice to avert a shut-out.  I didn't like getting beat at anything, but definitely not by a math problem.  I was competitive!  So were all of us!  You had to be competitive or you would never survive at this school.   Every one of us was an academic gladiator. 

Years of endless academic combat had honed our competitive instincts to a sharp point.  But today we had met our match.  Problem 11 was a huge blow to our pride.  Where had we failed? 

Of course we were curious.  The unsolvable Problem 11 had become our Gordian Knot, the symbol of our collective failure.    

Mr. MacKeith turned to the blackboard again.  I noticed a change in the group. Everyone had sat up and was paying attention now.  Like me, they were curious about this question.  How come NONE of us got it right?  This had never happened before.

With the entire group watching intently, Mr. MacKeith copied the problem on the board.  Then he began to work the equation.  He scribbled away on the blackboard for about 5 minutes.   For reference, there were twenty problems on the test and sixty minutes in the class.  This meant he was taking longer than usual.

Then something odd happened.  Mr. MacKeith erased his work completely.  Being in the back, I couldn't see the board clearly, but he appeared to be starting over.  This was very unusual.  I pondered the implications.  Mr. MacKeith definitely seemed to be taking more time than usual on the troublesome Problem 11.  If I didn't know better, I would think he was struggling.  No way.  It had to be my imagination.  I had never seen Mr. MacKeith make a mistake the entire year.

Now I was really curious.  Something was afoot.  It should have been over by now.

Everyone was leaning forward, craning to get a better look at the blackboard.  From my vantage point in back, it was clear all sixteen of us knew something was wrong. 

I thought about it.  Earlier I had reviewed this problem several times and for the life of me, I still could not figure out what I had done wrong.  Now I began to get suspicious.  Was it possible this wasn't our fault after all?  My mind tried to dismiss my heresy.  Mr. MacKeith was too smart for that!

However, the longer he took, the bolder I felt.  I wanted to raise my hand and suggest there was something wrong with the problem.  Maybe that was why we all missed it.  However, Mr. MacKeith's back was to us.  What good would it do to raise my hand? 

Then an even more sobering thought crossed my mind.  I shivered as I realized how close I had come to making a total fool of myself.  Did I really want to be the one to challenge my professor?  No, of course not! 

No fool would dream of suggesting to Mr. MacKeith that he had made a mistake.  Let someone else tell the Emperor he had no clothes on.  Still, I could barely stand the anticipation.  What if I was right?  

The tension continued to mount.  Mr. MacKeith stopped scribbling for a moment, erased some more stuff, then resumed. 

Then he stopped again.  This was very out of the ordinary. No one said anything, but nervous glances passed around the room.  Although we had no way to know what each other was thinking, apparently the whole class was thinking the same thing... what if Mr. MacKeith was wrong?   But none of us dared to say a thing.  We weren't that stupid!

Now Mr. MacKeith made the extraordinary move of stepping back from the blackboard as if to get a better perspective.  We all held our breath. 

Mr. MacKeith put his right hand on the back on his neck.  With his fingers, he began to scratch his neck.  This was the classic sign of confusion!!   This was the strongest sign yet that the unimaginable possibility was true.  The room was totally silent.  The tension mounted.

Now we were sure of it!  Mr. MacKeith had messed up!  He didn't know the answer either. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Tom Wimberly blurted out, "What now, Bright Man??"

Tom's words shot through the air like a guided missile. 

The entire class gasped as we saw the words strike their target! 

Mr. MacKeith froze.  His body went rigid. 

I gasped in horror. 

Tom Wimberly had clearly insulted our teacher! 

I was completely totally undeniably Appalled by what had just happened!

I had just witnessed the most serious breech of Saint John's Discipline
in my entire nine years at the school. 

If Mr. MacKeith were Zeus, Tom would be burned to ashes by now.

What was really crazy, I secretly agreed with Tom.  Judging from the reaction of my classmates, they shared the same opinion as well.

Tom was right!  Mr. MacKeith was the one who messed up; not us.  Now, thanks to Tom's bombshell, the cat was out of the bag.  Every person in the room realized we had all been thinking the same thing.  Maybe Mr. MacKeith really had made the error, not us!   But not one of us would have dreamed of saying so.  The risk was far far too great.

Worse, even though Tom had spoken the truth, "how" he said it had been a colossal mistake! 

Now the question was how Mr. MacKeith would react.  With his back to us, we still couldn't see his face.  We had no idea what the man was thinking or feeling.  We watched without breathing.  What would Mr. MacKeith do to Tom?  

Meanwhile, Tom Wimberly was in complete shock.  He covered his mouth with both his hands in disbelief of the words that had escaped his lips.  Tom was mortified at his mistake. 

Interestingly, we all covered our mouths too in an unconscious display of solidarity with our fallen hero.  We were in collective shock!  What had Tom done?  What was Tom thinking??!!??  Was there any way to save him?  

With his back still turned, Mr. MacKeith had tensed his shoulders and placed his hands on his hips. He continued to stand there with his back to us.  The tension was unbearable.  I was really worried for Tom's sake.

No one can ever insult a Saint John's teacher and hope to live!  

Tom had broken the DISCIPLINE!! 

Tom Wimberly was surely a Dead Man.

Would we be witness to an execution?

What was going to happen next?  Our hearts raced with panic at all the catastrophic possibilities.  Would Mr. MacKeith scream at Tom?  Would Tom be sent to the Administration Office?  Would they send for his parents to come get him?  Would he be suspended?   Even a firing squad didn't seem that remote.  Tom had insulted Mr. MacKeith!!

Mr. MacKeith still had his back turned to us. He was still rigid, no question about it.  If anything, the tension continued to mount. There was certain to be a terrible confrontation!

As the seconds ticked off, our eyes jumped from Mr. MacKeith to Tom and back to Mr. MacKeith.  Tom was terrified.  He was pale as a ghost.  He was also all alone.  In a less than noble gesture, his deskmate had deserted him.  Sensing great danger, the boy had moved his chair towards another table to avoid any collateral damage. 

Tom remained frozen.  As the worst-possible consequences of what he had just said darted through his mind, he was in complete shock... How much trouble was he in?  Did his mouth have a death wish?  Can you spell "S-U-S-P-E-N-S-I-O-N"?  What about "E-X-P-U-L-S-I-O-N"?  Could this mistake be serious enough to cost him his chance to go to college?   Tom was certain he was in a world of trouble!

With his back still turned to us, Mr. MacKeith roared in his deep voice, "Was that you, Thomas?"  

Tom said nothing.  Like a deer in the headlights, he was helpless to respond.   Tom was too consumed with fear and remorse to answer.  He just cringed.  We continued to stare at the unfolding drama in complete shock.  

Slowly but surely, Mr. MacKeith began to turn around.  Uh oh.  Now that we could see him, Mr. MacKeith looked really really mad!   Once he completed his rotation, hands on his hips, he leaned forward.   He had a huge scowl on his face.  Mr. MacKeith glowered at Tom. His eyes burned a hole into Tom.   We gasped in fear for Tom's fate. 

With Mr. MacKeith staring right at him, he asked Tom for the second time, "Was that you, Thomas?"

Tom somehow found the courage to speak.  In a squeaky voice, he whispered, "I'm so sorry, sir!  I couldn't help it.  It just slipped!  I didn't mean to say it, really!

Tom looked so defenseless!   He was so scared he was near tears. Tom was white as a ghost.

To our surprise, Tom started to speak again. "I didn't mean it, Sir.  I really didn't mean to suggest anything by it.  Actually I think you are a very Bright Man, Sir!"

I nearly convulsed with that last remark, but not Mr. MacKeith.  He eyed Tom carefully without changing his expression. The tension was unbearable.  This was High Noon!  For a moment, I thought he was going to tell Tom to leave the room and report to the Headmaster's office.

Then Mr. MacKeith actually grinned.  Mr. MacKeith couldn't keep a straight face anymore!   Our mouths dropped open with astonishment.  Mr. MacKeith had been pretending to be mad just to scare Tom half to death!   And it worked, believe me!  Tom was a complete puddle of emotion.

Mr. MacKeith's smile was more surprising than anything he could have done.  We could not believe our eyes.  We thought Tom had thrown "Graduation" out the window for sure.  As our disbelief at what we were seeing wore off, we began to laugh too.  What Tom had said was definitely funny; now it was safe to savor the moment.

However, before I let my guard down, I looked one more time to see if it was a trap.  No trap.  Mr. MacKeith was definitely laughing at what Tom had said!   I am sure Mr. MacKeith had been just as shocked as the rest of us at Tom's words, but he had never really been mad.  The way I saw it, the entire time Mr. MacKeith's "anger" was merely an act.  Tom looked so scared and miserable, Mr. MacKeith had taken instant pity on him.  Mr. MacKeith said, "It's okay, you can relax now, Tom.  You aren't in any trouble.  Please start breathing again." 

Mr. MacKeith knew Tom meant no real harm.  That wasn't Tom's nature.  Tom was not a disrespectful person.  Besides, now that I thought about it, there had been an obvious affection between Tom and Mr. MacKeith the entire year.  Everyone liked Tom and that included Mr. MacKeith.  In fact, I had actually seen Tom tease Mr. MacKeith before, although certainly not to this magnitude.  Thanks to their rapport, Tom was probably the only person in the room who could have said something like that and lived to talk about it. 


that the tension was broken, I thought what Tom had said was dead-on funny.  But our teachers were not known for their sense of humor in any confrontation.  I had seen times where my teachers had reacted harshly to even the slightest affront to their dignity. 

That made it even more amazing to see the stern, foreboding Mr. MacKeith let down his guard and laugh right along with the rest of us. The mask was gone.  Our exalted teacher had just revealed he had a 'human' side to him!  Before our very eyes, Mr. MacKeith underwent a transformation.  His stone face was shattered, his body armor was ruined. 

Mr. MacKeith had just revealed to us that he was a real person complete with a sense of humor!   He was able to laugh at himself and not worry about losing our respect.  Far from it.  We loved him dearly for how he had spared our friend and handled the tension to perfection. 

We loved him even more for his sense of humor.  He had deliberately scared poor Tom Wimberly completely out of his wits!  What Tom had said had been very funny, but Mr. MacKeith's reaction had been even funnier. 

Thanks to Mr. MacKeith's scowl, Tom nearly had a heart attack.  If I didn't know better, I think Mr. MacKeith had been having a little fun of his own at Tom's expense.  Who would have ever imagined this bit of inspired foolishness from the same man whose motto was "Leave Us Not Play"?   Mr. MacKeith had definitely stepped out of character today.

Once it was clear that Tom would live, the room began to calm down a bit.  Mr. MacKeith took a few steps forward and sat on front of his desk as he was wont to do.  He paused for a moment while Tom took his first breath in many a moment.  Tom's color slowly began to return.

Then Mr. MacKeith addressed the entire class.  "It looks like I made a mistake when I printed the test.  The reason none of you got it right is there is no correct solution.  I will add five points to all your scores."

Vindicated!  Our honor was restored!  We clapped and cheered so loud that the teacher from the next room actually came to peek in the door.  We were ecstatic with joy. 

Meanwhile Mr. MacKeith just stood there in front of his desk grinning from ear to ear at our foolishness.  Yup, stern, taciturn Mr. MacKeith was laughing right along with the rest of us.  It was so out of character I couldn't take my eyes off of him.  Mr. MacKeith was enjoying himself thoroughly.  He had played a good joke on Tom and was having fun. Imagine that!  

Today we had discovered our teachers make mistakes too.  Even the invincible Mr. MacKeith.  The even bigger discovery was they can be human too! 

Best of all, who would have ever thought Mr. MacKeith's no-nonsense, always-in-control class would be the scene of the funniest incident in my entire nine years at Saint John's?


Tom was our hero.  Fools rush in where wise men never dare, but he had survived his folly.  Tom had actually dared to say what the rest of us cowards wanted to say.  Tom became an instant celebrity; he was the most famous person in the school for days. Tom was the only person to ever insult an instructor and live to talk about it.  None of us believed it was possible.

My classmate Lindon Leader immortalized the event by putting a caricature of Tom in the 1968 Yearbook.  The reason Tom didn't get in trouble was simple - Tom meant no harm.  Mr. MacKeith reacted as a friend would to some perfectly-timed teasing, not as a pompous professor who had just had his competence challenged.

Truth be told, without his year-long tough guy/ no nonsense approach, we would not have learned a thing in that Chemistry course.  Mr. MacKeith's leadership had made a world of difference.

Mr. MacKeith used his "Mean Teacher Act" to help us stay in control.  Except for the silly accident that revealed the truth, I imagine we would have never known what he was really like.   It took the unimaginable coincidence of Mr. MacKeith's mistake combined with Tom's moment of temporary insanity to reveal the truth.  However, after his reaction to the 'Bright Man' quip, I guess he knew the game was up.  None of us would ever buy his tough act again.  Once Mr. MacKeith had smiled and laughed at his own mistake, we discovered the truth - behind the mask, our gruff, business-like teacher was a big soft teddy bear.

I thank Mr. MacKeith for the final lesson he taught me -  Leaders can make mistakes and still maintain their dignity and their student's respect.  It is okay to laugh at yourself and let others laugh too.

For the final month, Mr. MacKeith changed.  Now that he had actually smiled and laughed at himself in public, he was pretty mellow with us for the remaining time.  He may have even made a wisecrack or two, but don't hold me to that.

Underneath that scowl, Mr. MacKeith was a very kind man.  I had suspected it for a long time, but now I was certain.  Mr. MacKeith is one the teachers for whom I will have a lifelong reverence.


Mr. MacKeith

"Mr. MacKeith was truly a kind man who smilingly taught his students about a lot more things than chemistry." -  Gail Wandel, Class of 1967

Like Mr. MacKeith, I am a teacher.  Although I do not teach in an academic environment, I take my teaching role just as seriously as Mr. MacKeith.  Thanks to 30 years of practice, I know something about "teaching".

What I teach - social dancing - is light-weight compared to the difficult subject Mr. MacKeith taught.  After all, my students are very interested in my subject and are therefore extremely cooperative.  To me, the fact that Mr. MacKeith got a bunch of hard-headed, apathetic seniors to pay attention for an entire year was remarkable.  Mr. MacKeith deserves his spot in my personal Hall of Fame for his gifted teaching ability.

When I speak of my Saint John's teachers as role models, my mind instantly goes to all my favorite Saint John's instructors.  Thanks to people like Frank MacKeith, I didn't just learn text book material, I received invaluable training in how to become a successful human being.  

It is my opinion that the greatest gift Frank MacKeith gave to me was to impart the value of a work ethic.  More than any other instructor, he made it clear "why" it was unacceptable to take time off for any reason from our studies.  Senior Chemistry, he said, was the perfect example of an assignment that none of us relished.  Nevertheless, a lack of interest in the course was unacceptable.  When we went out into the larger world, we would be given assignments that we were expected to complete whether we were interested in it or not.  It was our responsibility to prove not just to him, but to ourselves, that we had the self-discipline to do the work anyway.  Once we demonstrated this, we would be ready for the next step beyond SJS.

To me, self-discipline was the final piece of the puzzle.  We all had talent.  We all had received a fine education.  Now, thanks to instructors like Frank MacKeith, Saint John's had taught us the value of determination as well.

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." - Calvin Coolidge 


Mr. Powell

"Mr. Powell found a way to inspire an 11 year old kid to write a 100 page story" - Rick Archer, Class of 1968

This article is 50 pages long.  No big deal.  I write 50 page articles on a regular basis.  As you have read, thanks to Mr. Powell, I got used to writing long stories at an early age.

On my SSQQ web site, there are easily another hundred stories and articles just like it.  Some are funny, some are sad, some are insightful.  I have never made a single penny from my writing.  So why do I do it?  For the same reason that some people play the guitar or learn to dance - it is in my soul.

Anatole France, a French writer, once said that nine-tenths of education is encouragement.  I completely agree.  I write today specifically because long ago a man encouraged me for two solid years to be a writer. 

Forty years ago I got my first taste of writing thanks to a long-forgotten, semi-disgraced instructor named Mr. Powell.  This young man, fresh out of college, came to Saint John's full of idealism and energy.  He left with a rude slap across the face.  He must been terribly disappointed and hurt.  Little does Mr. Powell know that for the brief time he spent at Saint John's, he deeply touched the soul of at least one kid.

And you know exactly who that kid is. 

I am sixty years old now.  I am able to look back and see how small events in my life had a major effect further down the road.  Mr. Powell started me on my career as a writer.  He not only made a generous offer to type up my story, he backed up his offer with a tremendous amount of coaching.  He sacrificed a great deal of his own time so that I might flourish.  He gave me the encouragement and the tools to get started, then he gave me more encouragement to continue.  "Nine-tenths of education is encouragement..."

As you might gather, I have a book that is percolating inside of me.  Every day I am getting closer to starting.  When I finish my book, I intend to dedicate it to Mr. Powell.  Sad to say, I am unsure what his first name was (Bill Powell?). On the other hand, I am positive Mr. Powell remembers me.  Who could ever forget typing 100 pages of the goofiest story ever written?

I hope Mr. Powell learns of my story.  I believe Mr. Powell deserves to know what a major impact he had on my life.


The Saint John's  Faculty

Mr. MacKeith, Mr. Powell, and many more... just like the beloved Mr. Chips of filmdom, over the years there have been many fine instructors to grace the halls of Saint John's. I have just barely scratched the surface.

The purpose of this story was to share a glimpse into the marvelous interaction between gifted students and gifted teachers at Saint John's.  Every Saint John's graduate knows in their heart that their Saint John's education was remarkable.  They know they were the lucky ones.  As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that the cooking in large kitchens is usually bad.  Against this comment, the private education of Saint John's stands in stark contrast.  Every Saint John's student knows what a blessing it is to have gone to this school. 

It is uncanny how many of us have reached our childhood dreams thanks to the encouragement we received during our years at Saint John's.  My own story is an excellent example.  Now let me add that my story is not the exception, but rather the rule.  I imagine that every single SJS student can come up with their own special memories of Saint John's instructors who had a major impact on their lives. 

Every single Saint John's student has been touched by gifted instructors.  For example, earlier I posted a tribute to Frank MacKeith written by Gail Wandel.  Ms. Wandel's comments were beautifully expressed. 

I have little doubt that if other students were to contribute, their stories would be just as touching and just as profound as the one that Ms. Wandel wrote.

This story has been my personal tribute to all the fine men and women of the Saint John's Faculty from each generation. Through the dedication of all Saint John's teachers past and present, they have helped make Saint John's the marvelous institution that it is. 

Saint John's gave me the gift of education.  Despite all those hours spent in Detention Hall, despite all those losing arguments over long hair, and despite those horrible Redox Reactions, trust me when I say will forever be grateful to my school as long as I live. 

My St. John's education remains the greatest gift of my life.

Rick Archer
Saint John's Class of 1968


Saint John's School - "It Could Not Have Started at a Better Place."

Berkeley Powell
Saint John's Class of 1966

Four Stories About Saint Johns Saint John's and the Mascot - My high school comes to its senses The Genetic Curse - My most painful high school memory
Maria Ballantyne - A Simple Act of Kindness Senior Year - My Favorite High School Memory
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