Saint John's Pride
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
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
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
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
school that is located over in the
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.
THE SAINT JOHN'S FACULTY
St. John's has long
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
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.
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
well-prepared to make significant contributions in all walks of
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
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.
For 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
education received at Saint Johns. It was a perfect
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
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
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 ).
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.
A TEACHER TAKES AN
INTEREST IN ME
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
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
Gold". It was a story about the ruthless Pizarro
and his Spanish Conquistadors who terrorized the Incas, the
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
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
My story drifted like a meandering river. It was
adolescent stuff at best. However to Mr. Powell's
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?
insight period was short-lived.
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.
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
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
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
around booby-trapped caves being chased by dinosaurs?
I assume we all agree on
the answer to this question. One in a million.
let's follow the chain of consequences of this "million to
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
TERROR IN THE CLASSROOM
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
There is always the underlying danger of rebellion.
One mistake and kids can turn on you in a
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
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.
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
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
I could see their disrespect was getting under his skin.
As his classroom disintegrated into a zoo, I watched him grow more and more
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
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.
AND DETENTION HALL
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
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
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
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
smart mouth and soon enough I was headed to Detention Hall on
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.
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
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.
fought Authority. Authority always won.
DISCIPLINE WILL BE MAINTAINED AT ALL TIMES.
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
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
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 choice. We 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
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
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.
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
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.
"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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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"
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
How could anyone be so Mary Tyler Moore-cheerful all the time? Was she really that nice?
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
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
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
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 DO SOME
PEOPLE SUCCEED WHERE OTHERS FAIL?
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.
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
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
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!
"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
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
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
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.
when we invariably felt short of his expectations, he reminded us to
begin concentrating again with his magic slogan, "Leave us not
As the picture
indicates, a lot of Chemistry involves mathematic equations.
Once Mr. MacKeith launched into
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.
- RICK MAKES A 'D' IN CALCULUS
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
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.
discovered my vaunted self-discipline was gone. I could NOT force myself to care about Calculus
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
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
I respected Mr. MacKeith so much that I continued to try in his class even though I didn't
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
Senioritis, Peggy Sue, Periodic Tables, and Redox
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.
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
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
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.
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 my 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
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
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.
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
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.
learn that no one thinks they did very well. No
one is happy. In a
couple minutes, we will
review the results.
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.
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.
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...
MacKeith Goes to the
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
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.
THE MYSTERIOUS PROBLEM 11
For the first
time in a while, Mr. MacKeith turned around.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
The entire class gasped as we saw the words strike their target!
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!
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
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
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
Wimberly was surely a Dead Man.
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.
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
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
"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.
white as a
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
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.
Now 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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
this, we would be ready for the next step
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." -
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,
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
intend to dedicate it to Mr. Powell. Sad to say, I am unsure
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
The Saint John's
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
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
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
Saint John's Class of 1968
Saint John's School -
"It Could Not Have
Started at a Better Place."
Saint John's Class of 1966