A Long Overdue Letter

  • David Hoffman Dear Mr. Karr,

    Remember me?  I was in your Westside High School AP American History class during our country’s bicentennial year.  I was the panic-stricken kid, short in stature and confidence, who cowered in the corner of your room during the first day of school.

    Why was I so intimidated? Well, with all due respect sir, your reputation of being the Rasputin of history teachers preceded my arrival. My older sister, always looking for a way to pinch me without using her fingers, received a gift from above when she saw your name listed on my teacher assignment sheet. She gleefully told me that she would visit the grave where I was buried under a mound of your history homework.  She also informed me that she would hold the dustpan while the custodian swept up the shards of my shattered self-esteem after your yelling, unreasonable expectations, unmanageable workload and unfathomable unkindness caused me to implode.

    I asked my parents to plead my AP placement case with Mrs. Bjorkman, guidance counselor extraordinaire and protector of fragile egos. They took their usual wait-and-see attitude and reminded me to show respect and learn as much as I could.

    I’ll never forget that first day of class when you told us that our final grade would, in large part, be based on the depth of our preparation and classroom participation. For someone who broke out in hives just asking a cashier for change, I was quite willing to take a failing mark.

    Mr. Karr, I never worked so hard to prepare for a class.  For our initial assignment, you handed us an illustration of a woodcut depicting the pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving.  You challenged us to debate its historical accuracy using primary texts, maps, and any other resources.  I spent an entire Saturday in the dusty stacks of the Omaha Public Library copying microfilm while becoming an expert on pilgrim attire, cuisine, and Native-American associations.

    When we met the following week, you had us sit in a big circle.  You taped the illustration on the blackboard and tapped in chalk the question: What’s wrong with this picture?  Then, you sat on your desk with clipboard, grade book, and uncapped pen waiting for someone to start the discussion.  You waited and waited. No one talked.  No one moved.  No one blinked. The pre-confessional silence was suffocating. Finally, you rubbed your beard, glanced around the room and started to make marks in your grade book. We all looked at each other.  Our eyes began screaming:  You go first.  No, you go first.  Don’t you see, I’m unprepared?  I’m not prepared either. Help! 

    Then a small voice squeaked. “The first pilgrims didn’t have buckles on their hats.”            

    All heads turned my way; your’s very slowly.

    Mr. Karr, there is a scene at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the movie’s hero, Charlie Bucket, returns a piece of candy to Mr. Wonka, feeling he is undeserving of the confection because he has broken a factory rule. Willy Wonka slowly takes the returned sweet in his hand, looks at the remorseful child and smiles. All is forgiven. He makes Charlie the new owner of the factory.  

    That is what happened after I broke the silence with my desperate act of contrition.  You turned to me, grinned and gave me the keys to the chocolate factory.  You encouraged me to expound on my answer, praised my research, took interest in everything else I had discovered, and then, in classic Karr fashion, castigated the rest of the class for being unprepared.

    During the following weeks, I wanted to show you and the class that I was worthy of possessing the keys.  I still recall many of your discussion prompts.  Was Jacksonian Democracy a watershed event in American history?  Did Lincoln actually free the slaves? Did Roosevelt plot to involve the United States in World War II?  Whatever the question you posed, I attacked it with the energy and glee of a kid looking for a golden ticket underneath a candy wrapper.

    The whole class quickly figured out that it was easier to work hard than hardly work. Yes, you were a very tough teacher. You did indeed raise your voice once or twice or twenty times when we came unprepared or did not meet your high expectations. But you taught us so much. Over the course of the year, you instructed us on how to engage in respectful debate, question the reliability and validity of resources, and understand a historian’s bias, among other skills. 

    Your tests were hard but fair. Classmates and I would spend many nights at McDonalds drilling each other over facts and figures (I don’t know why, but I still remember that FDR had a dog named Fala!).  Your class projects were a bear.  When I expressed an interest in researching the effect of the Dust Bowl on Omaha, you told me to pick a more challenging project.

    But, I also remember that incredible Saturday the class met at the old market and you gave us a walking tour of downtown Omaha. You told us stories of the plains settlers while we lunched on Kosher pickles and salt-water taffy.

    And, I’ll never forget the time you shaved your beard because you felt its presence was the reason the New York Yankees were on an extended losing streak.  You were such a Yankees fan.

    At the end of the year, you told me that you expected great things of me. You told me that you wouldn’t be surprised if some day I became a lawyer.

    Well, Mr. Karr. You were right.  I did go to law school.  And thanks to you, I still love learning about history and politics.  And, thanks to you, I still dislike the Yankees. 

    But get this, Mr. Karr.  Thanks to you, and many others along the way, I eventually became a teacher and a principal!  I too have high expectations of my students. I too want them to become life long learners and critical thinkers. I too want them to acquire the necessary skills to become happy, productive, contributing citizens. 

    Mr. Karr, I wish I hadn’t waited almost forty years to thank you for a wonderful high school experience, but, like you used to say—events are best understood when given a little time and distance. 

    Anyway, thank you for making your class a watershed event in my life. 

          Your Forever Grateful Student

          David Hoffman