[NOTE: What follows is a revised version of an editorial from the final issue I edited of Atlanta’s Finest Prep School’s (AFPS) History Department newsletter, upon the occasion of my retirement. The title phrase was one I used regularly with my students, to good effect, but without much in the way of an explanation–I guess you had to be there! Perhaps that’ll be the topic of another post.]
I have now been on the AFPS faculty for more than a generation. I was perhaps the last teacher hired by the school’s founding president, signing on the dotted line in the spring of 1973, just before that legend retired. I now regularly teach the children of my former students; several of those former students are now faculty colleagues; and another was-ahem!–“Senior Warden” at my church a couple of years ago–and, thus, my “boss,” because I was Clerk of the Vestry at the time. So, despite my Delaware roots and lack of a southern accent, I am from around here, at least in AFPS terms.
I somehow wound up here even though I came “burdened” with a PhD. After studying across town for five years at My Old Graduate School to become a History “professor,” I went looking for a job in the college ranks, but there were no jobs as a “professor” looking for me. So, I signed on here until, as I told myself frequently, “something better came along.” When one of my grad school friends learned that I was trolling the ranks of “prep schools” in search of employment, he averred that he’d “rather sell shoes than teach in high school,” but, in the event, he did neither.
Having trained to be a “professor,” I believed I was well-equipped to “profess” on the secondary level, especially because I had been assured that my new school was “like a little college.” And, for the first couple of years here, I pretty much lectured, or “professed,” in the classroom exclusively. (In my defense, I should mention that, in grad school, I had taken a required course called “Introduction to College Teaching,” which could just as well have been entitled “How to Lecture about History for Fun, but Little Profit.”) The transition from “professor” to “teacher” took several years, and, once I’d made it, I never looked back. Nevertheless, I’m still amazed that I was hired in the first place and have stayed so long. That I did, I attribute to the influence of two people whose obituaries I have had tacked on the bulletin board at the back of my classroom for a number of years.
The first of these “role models” was Miss Gertrude Weaver, my Modern European History teacher in 10th grade (we had no Advanced Placement courses at my high school in 1959). Miss Weaver came to us from the U. S. Armed Forces schools in Germany. While she looked the part of the “old schoolmarm,” she certainly didn’t act it. Miss Weaver was a bundle of energy and brought to the classroom a truly impressive variety of eccentricities that seemed to say, “This History stuff is a lot of fun, and I don’t take myself all that seriously either!” After only a few classes, though, I realized that, despite her seemingly deep-seated “nuttiness,” Miss Weaver took her teaching responsibilities very seriously and expected us to meet her demanding standards–or else! It was Miss Weaver, then, who taught me the importance of enthusiasm and the uses of eccentricity in the classroom, as well as the need to maintain rigorous academic standards.
The second obituary is of my grad school mentor, Professor James Z. Rabun. I took courses from him on the American Revolution and the Old South. The first of these led to my dissertation topic, while the second made me a southern historian. Dr. Rabun was the consummate southern gentleman. From him, I learned the importance of really knowing one’s subject thoroughly before trying to teach it; of cultivating the art of writing history in all its forms; of “keeping up in one’s field”; and I had a refresher course in the use of both eccentricity and (dry) humor in teaching about the past.
Occasionally, I got a look at the lecture notes Dr. Rabun brought with him to class: they were typed on paper yellowed with age, but in the margins and on slips of paper, clipped to the notes, were revisions, written in pencil in Dr. Rabun’s neat, precise script, based on new books and articles he’d encountered since he’d originally put the lecture together. I also appreciated his approach to serving as a dissertation director: he knew my work from his courses and had enough confidence in me to let me do things pretty much my own way, which I always thought of as the “give ’em enough rope” theory of directing a dissertation.
Although Dr. Rabun was disappointed when I told him I had “only” accepted a position at a secondary school, he continued to support me once I started at AFPS. He regularly sent me news of college and university posts supposedly available to folks like me, but these never amounted to very much. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was, a few years later, to thank Dr. Rabun for his help but assure him that I was determined to stay where I was–in a prep school rather than a college–“for the foreseeable future,” I always added.
And, in just a few more days, “the foreseeable future” will be here. I’ll clean out “my” room and prepare to begin the next phase of my life: I hope to finish a book I’ve been working on since the mid-1990s, research for which I’ve only been able to do each summer, in two and a half months of intensive activity, given the demands of my job the other nine and a half months of each academic year. While there are some things I won’t miss about this school, there are many I will: life in the classroom, for example, and you, my History Department colleagues (including a few outliers who have been “adopted” into the school’s finest department–you know who you are).
For thirty-seven years, I’ve left the house each morning but never “gone to work”; instead, I’ve “gone to school.” I’ve enjoyed it all, whether or not I’ve ever really been paid the “Big Bucks,” as I used to tell my students. In the words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” Or, as Muddy Waters put it, “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had.”