Gary Spring was the best teacher I ever had.
He was my history teacher for three years at Falmouth High School. Every day in his class was exciting, stimulating and absolutely terrifying. I never repeated that kind of classroom experience.
I approached it during a philosophy class at Georgetown and a civil procedure class at Cornell. But no one managed to teach me facts while teaching me how to think about facts – when to challenge them, when to accept them, and when to ignore them – like Mr. Spring did.
For a long time, the people I most wanted to make proud were my parents and Mr. Spring. My parents always knew that; I’m not sure Mr. Spring ever has. Now seems the most appropriate moment to tell him because a) he’s not grading me, b) I have a column in a newspaper, and c) he may never read this.
There’s another reason: He’s retiring from teaching. Friday was officially his last day.
Mr. Spring has been a teacher at Falmouth High School for – a long time. I’m not sure how long exactly, because he has no presence on the Internet. (Well, other than online comment forums that begrudge him his disdain for things like the Internet.)
I would not be surprised to learn that, as the final bell rang on Friday, Falmouth High School crumbled in on itself. When I think back on my four years of over-sized sweaters and double barrettes, the academic recollections begin and end with Mr. Spring. My memories depend upon his presence, and I’m half-convinced that ongoing, physical reality does, too.
My introduction to Mr. Spring was, without being too dramatic about it, the stuff of a Matt Damon-Ben Affleck movie. Before I even sat down in front of him, I had heard so many rumors about his class that I expected to cry or die the first time he looked at me. He was reputed to be a challenging, no-nonsense intellectual who gave long reading assignments and report topics that ended with a question mark.
The moment he started talking – fortunately, just in my general direction – my heart defibrillated with relief. He made a joke at his own expense. He wrote a quote on the chalkboard and explained how it related to what he wanted us to take away from his class. He perched on the front of his desk and talked to us like students capable of making it a two-way conversation.
I quickly decided I wanted to convince this man I was the greatest thinker this side of Cumberland.
I fell short of my goal, but it did not matter. I was learning words like “zeitgeist” and how mythology may have predicted all of human history and that Napoleon was a jerk. I was learning about mixed motives and lucky breaks and revisionism. I was learning that a question mark could be answered with a question mark, and that history does in fact repeat itself. I was learning that I could argue, even with a teacher.
Then one day, at a parent-teacher conference, he told my mother I was one of the most cynical students he’d ever had. And a lawyer was born.
Mr. Spring’s genius took many forms, but that certainly was one of them. He threw big ideas at us without seeming to pay attention to where or how they landed. He occasionally seemed to be opining without interest in our reaction. He could rarely be found outside his classroom.
But somehow he knew each of us. He knew whose extra credit to take with a grain of salt, and he knew who was under a lot of pressure from home. He knew that when he called me a cynic, I’d take it as flattery.
Mr. Spring taught by inspiring and led by stepping aside. He was an ally in the shadows and a cheerleader who whispered. He was the test that never ended.
Now he’s left the building, and I wonder what’s left of the building.
Mr. Spring, I’ve used this column to write about dessert, beer pong, and today, your influence on my life. I consider the flattery to have been repaid.
Also, thank you forever.