May 13, 2013

The Best Teacher I Ever Had

Tom Dodd, educator. (Photo from his facebook page.)
I learned of the passing of Tom Dodd pretty much first thing this morning, and it's been on my mind ever since. I've felt waves of profound sadness and loss, rushes of memories I'd almost forgotten I ever had, the occasional fit of laughter.

In order to best assess my feelings at the passing of the greatest teacher I ever had, I think it best to do what Tom Dodd would have had me do back in 1998.

He would have started by having me make a chart.

Along one side of the chart, I would list all the ways in which Tom impacted my life. How he taught me about the power of titles and the mere idea of authority, how he taught me to subvert an inherently flawed system, how he taught me to access creative processes I never knew I had.

Along the other side, I would list all the memories I have of him that stay with me every day.

Where they intersect, I would, can, and will find joy and humor in knowing that I genuinely wouldn't be who I am today without his influence.

CHS Yearbook, 2000
Tom taught a variety of classes at Community High School, where I was a student last millennium. He taught the high school newspaper, and along with that the occasional journalism or satire class. He had his own forum (CHS's version of a home room), and he taught whatever else interested, from architecture to something called "Earthworks," which is hard to describe on the best of days. It was essentially a how-to of community activism. Before that, it was it's own alternative school.

But the class I learned the most from was Creative Problem solving. I loved that class so much I took it twice, regardless of the fact that I really didn't need the credits the second time around. I considered myself unfathomably lucky to take it twice- although when Tom saw me sitting in the class the second time around, he made it clear he thought I was wasting my time. I knew I wasn't. What I didn't know what that it was also the last time he would ever teach it at Community High School.

It was a class that during some semesters was a Lit credit. Some semesters it was a History credit. Occasionally, it was a Math credit. The coursework was never changed to meet the credit, and it was never quite the same twice.

It was nothing more and nothing less than a class on how to think.

I don't mean that in the Dead Poet Society, everybody-on-the-desk, Oh Captain, my Captain, sense of the
word. Except I really actually do.

In that class, we learned how to take control of our unconscious process to use a lucid dream to come to new solutions to a problem. Students were encouraged to nap in class, so long as they shared the contents of their dreams afterwords. It was a testament to how engaging and entertaining the class was that hardly anyone took Tom up on that offer.

We learned a variety of methods of dream interpretation, including a whole class session dedicated to Freud where nobody was permitted in the room without wearing a beard. (I wore a costume beard, most girls who wanted to be allowed into the class taped paper to their chins. The gentlemen who were able grew their beards out for weeks in anticipation. I can still remember the gleams in their eyes as they stroked their beards thoughtfully, listing phallus after phallus.)

It was Tom's goal, I think, not to teach us a damn thing. We all learned.

In one class, we subverted his call for Parliamentary Procedure to remove him from control of the curriculum. We passed measures to ban certain students from directing us in productive directions, and instead pushed through a measure that on the last day of class we would bar the doors and smoke cigars out the classroom window.

I know, it was incredibly illegal. And irresponsible. But who cares? We were teenagers, learning that we had in our lives the opportunity to be in control of our destinies, to make choices and follow through on them and learn about their consequences in a real-world environment.

I'm a Cowgirl, get it? Tom Dodd approved.
Creative Problem Solving was as much a class about navigating your position in life on earth as it was about the way people navigate life on earth.

After taking CPS for my second time, I managed to take it a possibly record breaking third time as a Community Resource class, me and a few other students scrambled together a "CPS II" proposal and took it as essentially an independent study. Of course Tom agreed to act as our supervisor. For that class we went on camp outs and watched movies and generally had an awesome time. We watched "Animal House" and ate popcorn. One of our group got hypothermia playing in the waters of Lake Huron in March. Another spent an entire evening reenacting all of "The Monster at the End of This Book" from memory while under a blanket. I learned about sharing responsibilities and fostering ideas as a group in a profound way- and of course our goal was to get credit for doing absolutely nothing.

Tom as a teacher and adviser was perplexing. He supported his student's efforts to avoid learning, while simultaneously helping them to learn the benefits of learning in the first place. He was a big believer in work smarter, not harder. He liked bad jokes, offending people unnecessarily, and grilled cheese.

Tom was a vile, perverse, offensive old man. He was also an activist for civil rights and for equality, and for the preservation of history and nature. He dropped life advice out of nowhere, and it would actually stick with you. He seemed to be able to see into the kids in his classes, right into them, and find value and worth and even brilliance inside.

He didn't care if you skipped class. He didn't care if you went into his class instead of wherever you were supposed to be. He cared more about the cultivation of your mind as an instrument for wonder and knowledge and creativity than he did whether you could pass any sort of standardized test.

He once advised me to marry somebody rich. I had said I was going to be an artist or a writer or something like that, and he told me, "You're going to be poor, so marry somebody rich. You don't need any help being poor."

It was a joke, but it was also at once a warning that I might want to reconsider my decision making process, and a tacit approval of the decisions I'd already made.

I use the tools he gave me daily. It was eight years after taking his classes that I finally threw away my old notes. I still regret that decision weekly.

I don't know what I would have done without the influence of Tom Dodd.

I might have actually majored in something practical when I moved on to college, finishing my degree in a reasonable amount of time. I might have taken his advice and married somebody rich. I might have stayed in Ann Arbor and worked at the deli next door to the high school for the rest of my salad days.

Tom Dodd
I owe Tom a great deal.

I know I'm far from alone in this. His facebook page is a seemingly endless list of remembrances, of students-turned-teachers crediting him with inspiring to teach, of former students thanking him for believing in them when nobody else did, of tales of absolutely unfathomable obscenity  in a school setting, or of days shared in Tom's classroom off the stairwell. I know that there are practically generations of Tom's former students, all of whom are sharing in their sadness in this time, and still finding joy and embarrassment in the intensely meaningful time they spent with him, learning at his side. I know that, as for me, for an amazing number of people who took his classes, Tom Dodd WAS Community High School.

I am grateful to have had him in my life. To have had anyone like Tom in my life. But I can't imagine that there has ever been or will ever be another person to compare to Tom Dodd, so I must count myself among the unfathomably lucky few to have learned at his odd, stuttering side.

The world is less absurd place today than it was a few days ago. A more solemn, less wondrous place.

I will miss him more than I can say, so instead I will say what I wanted to say to him last summer, when I missed my high school reunion to have a baby...

Thank you, Tom, for everything.
Thank you for helping me shape my world view, and discover whole new possibilities of thought and reason and perspective and possibility.
Thank you for my education.

Thank you, Tom Dodd.
You were truly the best teacher I could have ever dreamed to know.


  1. He sounds like he was a great teacher. This makes me want to go look up a certain teacher who had a big impact on me.

  2. Thanks for this. It brings back a lot of memories of Tom. ~neil CHS '91

  3. Aww...they're so cute



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