Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feeling a Teacher's Influence after 70 Years

In 1980, I interviewed Bryan "Skipper" Hall, a man who had spent fifty years as a Methodist minister in New Mexico. He was eighty-three years old and willing to talk openly and honestly about his career, family, and personal experiences. Like almost anyone his age, he had endured heartbreaking tragedies throughout his life. Even so, he radiated an infectious optimism that I found inspiring. To this day, he is one of the most emotionally mature people I have met.

At the time of the interview I was a young man facing many crossroads. I was a first-year teacher struggling through the challenges of teaching high school students. I was also two months away from getting married (to Skipper's granddaughter, I might add). I went into the ten-hour interview with Skipper figuring it would make a good oral history project for my masters in history. I left having learned invaluable lessons about how to live a good life, lessons that have remained with me to this day. I also learned an unforgettable lesson about the importance of teaching that has carried me through an almost forty-year career in education.

In 1974, a home that Skipper and his family had built with their own hands near the Sacramento Methodist Assembly was destroyed in a forest fire. Skipper and his wife Gladys lost virtually everything they owned. When Skipper talked to me about the tragedy he expressed little sentimentality and kept his emotions about the tragic loss under control. Life goes on, I suppose.

Five years after the fire, Skipper’s wife died, ending her long struggle with physical pain and suffering. Only two months later, Skipper's son Jack was tragically killed in an automobile accident. A horrific event for Skipper, I am sure. Nevertheless he spoke to me about both the loss of his wife and son in a matter-of-fact way, keeping his emotions in check. I never sensed he was apathetic or unfeeling. On the contrary, I sensed deep personal pain tempered by a rational understanding of the tragedies that allowed him to keep moving forward. 

During the ten hours I spent interviewing Skipper, he provided only one moment of demonstrable emotion. He wept openly when talking about a teacher he had not seen for seventy years, a teacher who had tried to keep him from dropping out of school. While talking about the teacher his voice broke, and he could not continue speaking. 

"I had a teacher named Morton and she was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was the only one I remember by name. She begged me not to leave school; in fact, she cried about it. Later in life I tried to find her, I wrote back to San Angelo but they couldn’t locate her.… I tried to find her to tell her I went back to school, but I couldn’t find her." – Bryan "Skipper" Hall, 1980

Skipper had simply wanted to let Mrs. Morton know that he had returned to school, graduated from SMU, and become a minister. His memories got the better of him when he told me the story. He lost his composure and motioned for me to turn off the tape recorder. He needed a moment to wipe his tears and get control of himself.

Bryan “Skipper” Hall
SMU Student Body President, 1925-1926
All teachers should know that story. They should know that in the midst of all their hard work and frustration — during the dark days when they doubt whether they can even remain in the classroom — they can think about Skipper Hall and the teacher who touched him so deeply. Skippers's story should give teachers a broader sense of the importance of their work and the tremendous influence they can have on students. Seventy years from now, some elderly person who has already lived a productive and inspiring life just might be thinking fondly about a teacher from long ago.

Skipper Hall taught me that the power of teaching works in mysterious ways, reaching across generations with wisdom, hope, and inspiration. Teaching is, indeed, a noble profession.

© 2012 James L. Smith

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Hamilton Mixtape

I first played "The Hamilton Mixtape" for teachers at my AP summer institutes last July before Hamilton had opened on Broadway. Who could have known at that time that Ron Chernow's great biography of Alexander Hamilton would become such a hit as a musical? With the 16 Tony nominations it earned today, Hamilton broke a record for the most nominations in the 70-year history of the Antoinette Perry Awards. (Prince had called Hamilton the "best history class ever.") All honor to Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the show. I've embedded a video of Lin-Manuel performing "The Hamilton Mixtape" at the White House in 2009, six years before Hamilton hit Broadway. Lin-Manuel was performing for a White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Work.

Posted on (9.1.15)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bach, Organ Fugue in C minor, BWV 546 (c. 1717)

For the  students in the WILL program at WNMU who attended my recent class on Bach, here's the latest animated graphical score based on Bach's music from Stephen Malinowski and his Music Animation Machine.

Posted on (2.19.16)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

George Washington, the Enlightenment, and the Creation of the United States

"I am sure the mass of citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters.” – George Washington, 1796 

At 6’2” and 210 pounds, George Washington was a muscular and athletic man who dominated every room he entered. He was a natural leader, and for the last 45 years of his life he found himself at the center of almost every significant event leading to the creation of a new nation — a nation proclaiming a belief in the rights and happiness of its people. As a man of the Enlightenment, Washington led a revolution against the Old World and its unrestrained superstitions, religious bigotry, and intolerance. 

My presentation for AP U.S. history teachers, titled “George Washington, the Enlightenment, and the Creation of a New Nation,” demonstrates how teachers can frame historical events from 1754-1799 around the life of George Washington. In my opinion, it’s difficult (and almost impossible) to understand the creation of our nation without examining Washington’s remarkable life, a life that ended with a final revolutionary act — the emancipation of his slaves in his Last Will and Testament. 

This bust of Washington was created from a life mask made in 1785 by the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. It’s an image of Washington in his early fifties that has been described as one of the most accurate depictions of him in any work of art.  

Posted on (8.27.15)

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Welcome to WriterSmith. This blog combines postings from other sites I am currently using to share information on disparate subjects. One sites is dedicated to the promotion of classical music. The other is designed as both a resource for history teachers and a temporary landing site for Suncrest Publications, my personal self-publishing business.

I am a teacher who is “harnessed to the humanities.” I am interested in a wide range of topics in the humanities and the art of teaching those topics. I will use this blog to repost what I have written on those interests for other blogs, as well as subjects that don't conform to the focus of my other sites.

You can visit my other sites at the following addresses.

Classical Tyro: A Beginner’s Guide to Great Music

Why Teacher History: A Website for James L. Smith

Stay tuned for more information about the books I have published through Suncrest Publications.