When I was recruiting for the fifth most expensive boarding school on the planet several years ago, I leaned over to my boss at one of those zany ballroom signup sessions and told him that the prototype hire for us was a public school educated teacher working in a large city.
He nearly choked on his Swiss chocolate.
I still stand by that statement as I write this eulogy for my mentor and friend, George Smith, who died this past week at the age of 69.
I first met George when I started my first teaching job at Quincy High School (MA/USA) in the Fall of 1995. Quincy (pronounced Qwinzee), is the Queens of Boston, the City of Presidents, and the start of my journey into teaching. It’s a seaside town with a proud tradition of shipbuilding and hardscrabble folks who left Boston for a piece of the American dream and a hopeful view of the ocean. It’s the birthplace of two Presidents (John Adams and John Quincy Adams) who are buried directly across the street from where I worked for seven years.
I remember my first days on the job, nervously washing down the black slate board with a dirty rag after I dusted off the long carved wooden chalk tray at its base. I’m not making that up.
“HEY!” a voice yelled at my door, causing me to startle. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT RAG!” I turned to see a short man in thick glasses and a frumpy plaid shirt holding a large yellow sponge in one hand and a dusting brush in the other. It was George. “Welcome to the team, kid,” he said more softly. “Try these out, they might work better. And there’s a bucket in the closet over there in the corner if you need some water.”
It was the start of a relationship that would last fourteen years until I left for a life overseas and we lost touch.
It wasn’t easy teaching in Quincy. Minimum class size was about 26, resources were limited, and the audience was tough. George would often give me advice between classes when he’d notice the shell shocked look on my face.
“Hey kid,” he’d say. “You gotta learn to sub for yourself every now and then. Put them to work and sit at your desk. Pull yourself together.” (It was the first and most lasting piece of advice I ever got from a veteran. I pass it onto my teachers even today).
I asked if I could observe him, which was like asking Daniel Day Lewis if you could drop by the set to pick up a few things. He was in a league onto himself, the type of teacher that no one could emulate, replicate or simulate. He had packed classes of students, as diverse a group as any international school from places like Vietnam, China and working class Quincy. The front of his class had four flat wooden tables lined up, stacked with papers like a mad professor at work. The tone of his voice would go from yelling at the top of his lungs to a whisper. He’d run up and down the aisles between the desks, raising his arms up in the air over some historic irony that he pointed out.
In the middle of a sentence about Abe Lincoln or Nikita Khruschev, he’d think of something and go running to the stack of papers. He’d motion hysterically for a reluctant Chinese girl to come up to the front and he’d hand her stacks like a mad scientist on the brink of a discovery. “PASS THIS OUT!” he’d yell. “IT’S GOING TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” Everyone was so mesmerized by his animation, it didn’t matter if their English wasn’t good enough to understand what he was talking about.
I wanted to clap at the end of class.
He told me that teaching was the most exhausting job in the world because you had to give five live performances every day. “FIVE A DAY!” he’d scream, waving his finger in the air. “I’ve done more than Yal Brynner!!” (a famous Broadway actor known for over 4000 performances in the King and I).
In the summers, George would organize road trips for us to New York City to do research. He’d pick me up in his Buick Roadmaster station wagon and had a pile of coupons and maps on the front seat. The whole trip was organized to the minute. Diners, cheap hotels in New Jersey, he had it all figured out. We went to obscure places like the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach near Brooklyn, the site of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Teddy Roosevelt’s homestead in Oyster Bay. (George actually resembled the former President). I felt so energized after the trips that I felt I could teach for the rest of my life.
George wanted to teach AP Economics in the early 1990s, several years after the movie Stand and Deliver. No one thought he had a chance, but he took a class of non-native English speaking Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese students and got them all to pass the A.P. Economics exam. ALL OF THEM. He did it by getting the students to use universal symbols of graphing complex economic principles rather than learn the complex English attached to them. His students did so well, that the school was audited by the College Board, just like Jaime Escalante in the movie.
George raised a family of five on a teacher’s salary. In the summers, he’d work full time for the National Park Service in Boston, giving walking tours of the historic district that were just as exhilarating and exhausting as his classes. I joined his tours on several occasions and watched as groups of people from around the world would give him loud ovations at the end, every time. He captivated audiences by painting pictures in the imagination with anecdotes and historic references that made everything accessible, real, and amazingly funny.
Even though I could never emulate his genius, George Smith baptized me in the sacred art of teaching. He filled me with the passion to connect with kids and the simple premise that nothing was more important than making people feel they could do anything if someone believed in them.
I miss you my friend. God bless.