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from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Memorial for Dr. Vars, 10 March 2012

There is nothing so old as death; nor so new.

It's  a bright sunny day here in northeastern Ohio, though not warm.  Sunny but cold--appropriate weather for this day of remembering a life and a recent death.  We've just returned from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent for the memorial service for Dr. Gordon F. Vars, who was one of my professors at Kent State while I was working on my master's and doctoral degrees there in the early 1970s.  I was his grad assistant for one year (I think it was 1971-72); I took several courses from him; he became my dissertation adviser.

The service was moving in so many ways.  Former students, friends, colleagues, and family members spoke about his effects on their lives.  Much lovely music (a string quartet played throughout), a touching eulogy by the minister, the Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer.  So many stories, memories.  Laughter and tears.

I've written at length about him elsewhere, but there were a couple of things I wanted to add here.  And a story ...

The former KSU School
When I first became his grad assistant, he told me he wanted to give me a taste of what life as a professor was like.  I sort of knew that already: My dad was a professor.  But I smiled, eager, perhaps even a little condescendingly phony.  He had a dual assignment during those years: He taught in the College of Education (graduates and undergraduates), and he also taught in the mornings at the Kent State University School (1913-1982), the "lab school" then still in operation.  He taught the 8th graders.  His subject--"Core," once in fashion, a curriculum model that combined English-social studies-guidance.  Dr. Vars believed profoundly in the "core concept," long after it had fallen out of fashion.  Through his determination he kept alive the National Association for Core Curriculum, whose official name I'd forgotten until I saw it again today in the church.

When Dr. Vars was out of town, I sometimes took over his classes that year I was his grad assistant..  I taught his section of Educ 342, a course for students who were beginning their teacher training.  I enjoyed that class.  Most of the students were serious about becoming teachers--and afraid at the same time.  They appreciated being with someone like me, I think, someone who was fresh from the classroom.  I'd taught five years at the Aurora Middle School and thought--no, knew--that I knew every damn thing there was to know about teaching.  And probably more, too.  (I was soon--see below--to get a much-needed lesson in humility.)

Beside the Kent undergrads, I also had to teach Dr. Vars' eighth graders over at the KSU School.

Those kids had known each other since early elementary days; they had been in the same classroom since then; they knew one another.  They knew what to do with a young puppy like me: They chewed me up and spit me out.  The longest days of my life were the three days I spent in their company.  (Each morning at home, I begged to awaken with smallpox--anything to prevent my having go get devoured alive by a roomful of voracious 13-year-olds.)   I was the "mark"; they were the con men.  I was the instrument; they were the musicians.  I was the baseball; they were the Louisville Slugger.  I was the .. you get the idea.   I very quickly found out that there was no correlation whatsoever between what I told them to do and what they actually did.  They did what they wanted to.  My words were merely foul air they were forced to inhale, that's all.  And as we all know, inhaling does not require any ears.

One day they suggested we play "telephone," a game, they said, that Dr. Vars often used to teach them about the unreliability of communication.  So--I whispered something innocuous to an innocent-looking lad nearby (something like, "Susan recently fed her cat some food from a tin can").  The innocent-looking lad then whispered it to the next person and so on around the room.  When the last person had heard the message (and he was not an innocent-looking lad), he spoke aloud something so, well, dirty that I will not even write it here (a decision that will greatly please my mother).

I'd never heard such words uttered in a classroom.  Rarely in a locker room.  I had no idea what to do.  So I did nothing--except declare my outrage (and, silently, consider a career change).  And on we went to a worksheet on commas.

I think I would have succumbed completely if I had not invited to class one day two of my former Aurora Middle School students, John Mlinek and Dave Prittie, who had been making 8mm and Super-8 films together for some years.  Their films were funny and imaginative and they saved my ass one awful spring day in the early 70s.  The Kent 8th graders loved the films, loved John and Dave, and my stock ticked up a half-point or so--until the next day.  At which time they once again made a Cuisinart of our (their!) classroom.

They were the Cuisinart; I was the squash.

And when Dr. Vars got back from his absence, he asked me how it had gone.

"Just great.  Love those kids," I lied.

I'm sure he heard a different story at school.  But he never said anything.  And I was grateful.  And remain so, for so many, many reasons.

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