By John Lambert
Since 1969, I have spent my life in schools, cycling through roughly the same yearly schedule of fall beginnings and summer endings. One might imagine that this routine could become tiresome but for me it never has. As a student and then a teacher, school communities have nourished and fascinated me, providing as they do a template by which to gauge a whole range of human experience. In August of 1986, I entered my first McCallie classroom. I was 21 years old and looked, it would seem, much younger than that. Dean Sholl’s wife, Penny, likes to tell the story of the day I was moving into North Hutch where they lived with two small boys; she offered to help me out, mistaking me for a lost boarder who had arrived on campus a few days early.
The first morning of class, after a faculty orientation with that generation’s McCallie luminaries—Houston Patterson, Miles McNiff and Bob Bailey among them—and what would become the next in a long line of legends—Yogi, Bob Bires, Chet LeSourd to name a few —I walked down the hallway of the Academic Building, trailing a group of juniors.
“Who do you have for 1st period English?”
“Someone named Lambert. I think he’s new.”
“Awesome! Now this should be fun!”
Mistaking me for another lost boarder, they entered my classroom and I followed them, taking a seat in one of the back rows. Boys talked about their summers, girls they’d been seeing, parties they’d attended, vacations with families that they’d taken. The bell rang. Still no teacher. Conversations and growing laughter and restlessness continued. “Where is he? Maybe he’s lost.”
I stood up and announced, “Good morning, guys! I’m Mr. Lambert and I’ll be your teacher this I’ve always been glad that I did that; in retrospect, it signifies to me something I’ve always believed about teachers, or about the sort of teacher I’ve always admired: that the lines between teacher and student, between who’s doing the teaching and who’s being taught, are never quite so clear as they might seem. 29 years of McCallie students have given me the gift of walking into classrooms and being challenged, entertained, and sometimes even moved to tears; adolescents are no longer children and not yet adults, and that intersecting space in a human life has been a privilege to witness and to participate in.
Teenagers can smell a fraud a mile away and because of this gift, they can compel us to become our best selves, as well. When teachers say, as they all too rarely do, that they can learn more from their students than they could ever hope to teach them, I think that they mean that adolescents have a fresh, distinctive way of seeing the world. More than that, it is a way which teachers once had and if we are lucky, which we can still catch glimpses of if we are willing to try.
This spring, I accepted a call to teach at another school in a different city, surprising myself, primarily, and to a lesser extent my friends and family. The night I made the decision, I wrote to my current students to tell them of my decision. What I wrote to my seniors I could easily have written to nearly three decades of McCallie boys, on their way to becoming McCallie men, so I share it with the thousands of you whom I’ve been fortunate enough to teach along the way.
One of the great joys of my life has been walking into this classroom with you day after day, not knowing what the 50 minutes would hold. Some days we’ve shared great intellectual energy, tossing around deeply felt ideas about families, about racial issues, politics, theology, about literature. Other days, the conversation has veered towards the personal—random stories about classmates, inside jokes that only McCallie guys would get, stupid YouTube videos. I have embraced all the nuances of our time together.
You have shared your stories with me—a gift I cherish and keep in trust. And you have, from time to time, taken my advice about how to hone your words, and make them shine brighter than they might have without my attention. It’s humbling work, reading your writing, as talented as you are.
You’ve heard me quote Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson for years.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant”
I have been telling you for years to reinvent your lives, that college represents a time to recreate yourselves and sluff off those parts of yourself you want to cast aside and pursue those parts of yourself you know you have it in yourselves to become. I’ve told you that the “road less traveled by” makes all the difference and that the world’s great need meets your own best gifts and that that intersection is a wonderful and terrifying and invigorating space. I believe those truths. And now it’s time for me to live them, too.
I want you to hear from me that I’m going to teach at Westminster in Atlanta in the fall after a wonderful 29 years at McCallie. This school has given me so much, personally, professionally—it’s given me the space to become the teacher I’ve become, has given me decades of important relationships with students and colleagues. McCallie will always be part of who I am. It’s gratifying to me that you, the class of 2015, and I, are leaving together for another great adventure. I know you are on your way to amazing paths, the likes of which you can’t even begin to anticipate.