As we wrap up Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve done some reflecting about my own years as a student. There are teachers who have a lasting impact on our lives and on April 2, I lost one of mine. Mr. Murphy wasn’t just special because of how much knowledge of history and politics was crammed into his brain and shared with all of us, but he pushed us in ways that every student deserves to be pushed. He challenged us to think and come to our own conclusions. He may not have agreed with where we all landed but he sure did love to wave his hands in the air and debate us when he didn’t.
Murphy had no love for freshmen. As ninth graders, we saw him as a curmudgeon who walked the halls, head down, with nary a glance in our direction. Little did we know that as soon as he entered his classroom of seniors, something magical happened. It was almost a rite of passage to finally be old enough to gain entrance into Mr. Murphy’s heart. And it was so worth the wait.
In some ways, it’s hard to capture what exactly made him so special.
Yes, he had extremely high expectations of his students, pushing them to use evidence to draw conclusions, and then write twenty pages to defend those conclusions. And he could stand at a podium and talk about history and politics as if it were as natural to him as breathing. He loved to banter—whether it was politics or the Red Sox, Murphy had an opinion. Sarcasm was one of his many gifts—he never used it to demean his students but he sure laid it on thick for whoever was currently occupying the White House—unless of course it was Jimmy Carter. Mr. Murphy loved President Carter. His more conservative students easily forgave him for that.
Mr. Murphy was authentic. He had a memory like a steel trap, regaling students for four decades with stories of American history and politics as well as the travails of his former students and colleagues. He wasn’t just a teacher—he was also a performance artist. He could get us to belly laugh at Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis while also requiring us to know everything about them. I still remember my flashcards with names like John Sununu, George Mitchell, and Bob Dole. And he was especially fascinated by the Theodore H. White book, The Making of the President, 1960, after his own experience of having listened to the first Nixon vs. Kennedy debate on the radio—he was distraught that Nixon had wiped the floor with Kennedy only to find out the next morning that, thanks to the new medium called television, Kennedy was hailed the winner.
My first long paper for Mr. Murphy was about the 1990 Massachusetts Senate race between John Kerry (D) and James Rappaport (R)—we had to collect as much information as we could by watching televised interviews and reading news articles and attending a debate (if you were lucky enough to win a ticket from the League of Women Voters like I was…I still remember meeting John Kerry and thinking he was wearing too much tv make-up). After conducting our research throughout the campaign, we had to decide who we thought was the better candidate, and defend our decision. I remember thinking at the time that I was so original when I thought up a title about the “lesser of two evils,” not realizing at the age of seventeen that people had been saying that about elections for generations and that I’d be saying it for the rest of my life. I picked John Kerry in that race—I suspect Murphy agreed with my choice.
I still remember our midterm exam for political science class—we had spent much of the first semester studying philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and Rousseau. He gave us a one sheet mimeograph—the purple kind—with the lyrics to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. The test consisted of one task: Explain what each philosopher would say about the lyrics. All of the lyrics. So line by line, verse by verse, we applied each philosophy to the words on the page. I still remember my hand killing me by the time I was done with that test. Meanwhile, Murphy, in his usual tweed jacket, sat and read the newspaper while we worked.
Speaking of the newspaper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that as students in his political science class, we were required to have a subscription to the New York Times. If memory serves, I didn’t comply with reading it as often as Mr. Murphy would have hoped but it did help to build the foundation for what is now a steadfast commitment to always going beyond the headline and trying to find the truth.
Mr. Murphy died in April at the age of eighty-three. He had cancer. I wish I could have seen him just one more time for one last hug. You see, Mr. Murphy was a hugger. Unlike so many of us, he held on tight, never in a rush to let go. When he passed, I suddenly felt a panic that it had been over ten years since I had last seen him. But then I remembered—and thanked God—that I had seen him just a couple years ago and had the opportunity to tell him about the blessed life I am living, a life that he helped to shape. What most sticks with me about our last visit is how totally focused he was on what I was sharing with him. We were seated on a bench in the high school lobby and he was so content listening to me describe my life—my three boys, my husband, my work. And then, as he always did when it was his turn, he updated me about his grandchildren. Mr. Murphy always glowed when he talked about them.
If there’s one thing I take away from my experience as Mr. Murphy’s student, it is that I was lucky—privileged really—to have had him as my teacher. I had the unearned advantage of being educated in a place with high expectations for students, a place that knew how much we were capable of with a good hard push. Far too many students have never known the gift of high expectations or the gift of being told “you got this” when the number of words you’ve been asked to write seems impossible. By the time I had graduated high school, I had written three papers over twenty pages. Two of them were for Mr. Murphy.
So for all of you, who are setting the bar high and loving your students by pushing them, thank you.
To all of you, seen by some as the curmudgeon, but filling classrooms with knowledge, laughter, and love, thank you.
To all of you who hold on tight when your students need it, thank you. The skills, confidence, and trust you are building in them will last forever. I can attest to that.
Mr. Murphy will always be a part of me. And this Teacher Appreciation Week that falls on the heels of his passing, it is he who most fills my heart.
Obituary is here.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Good School Hunting.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.