Brand building through storytelling

Teachers to the core

It’s been years since I last thought of Eleanor and Frank Milliken, who taught generations of students at my small New Hampshire high school quite a lot about their subjects–science in her case, Latin in his–and even more about life. But lately I’ve been immersed in a tide of memories shared online by graduates of the school (as you may know from my previous post). The Millikens loom large in this astonishingly heartfelt conversation and through other people’s impressions, I’ve reconnected with my own.

I was one of those quietly worrisome kids who amble into class with fixed notions of what merits their attention. If it didn’t have to do with Dylan Thomas, Ingmar Bergman or the pronouncements of Holden Caulfield, I preferred to stare out the window. When Eleanor’s zest for earth science failed to dent my lofty disregard, she called my mother in for a chat. Her hopes for a breakthrough amused my mother (a teacher herself, by the way). Rona is dreamy. Rona is an artist. Rona has no interest in earthly matters.

I had to admire Eleanor for caring enough to take me on. I just wished she could be teaching something else. How about history? Like good fiction, it had a plot and colourful characters.

With Frank I fared better (the Romans may have been a bunch of imperialists but at least they showed respect for art and poetry). Of course, he wasn’t “Frank” to us then but “Mr. Milliken” in a black suit worthy of an undertaker. Still, his bright red tie and deadpan delivery of shamelessly bad puns revealed an irreverent streak that moved me to crack my reluctant brain on the mysteries of Latin syntax for the next four years. I must have averaged A-minus (okay, maybe B-plus).

Now I remember just enough Latin to understand the graffiti joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Mostly, I remember Frank’s commitment to me and to everyone else who conjugated verbs in his classroom.

He was always game for a challenge. With an unsuspecting gaggle of mothers, he led our class on a trip to New York, where a number of us tried his formidable patience. One girl ventured out on her own to night court. Another wandered the halls of our hotel until she met up with some drunk frat boys from North Carolina and accepted their slurred invitation to join the carousing. A third had the foresight to check in with a bulging suitcase full of beer, which she dragged down the hall with the hell-bent tenacity that only adolescents can muster. I was lucky enough to share that girl’s room.

Frank and Eleanor seemed old to me then, but in fact they were still in mid-career and only just getting started on their legacy. They would later drive a van full of kids on a western road trip that’s now part of the legend being shaped online. And Eleanor, who taught me for only one year, turned her enthusiasm for astronomy into a challenge to the school community. Thanks to her, Oyster River High School acquired both a space capsule and a planetarium (built with funds raised by graduates after my time). When Isaac Asimov declined her invitation to visit the school, she kept trying.

My favourite Eleanor story, shared by one of those later graduates, concerns the night she went hunting UFOs with Betty Hill. In case you’re too young to have heard of Betty, let me fill you in: she and her husband Barney were briefly famous in the 60s for their cockamamie tale of abduction by an alien spaceship. Conveniently, the Hills lived in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I heard them speak and have never seen a dottier duo, but the door in Eleanor’s mind must have been at least slightly ajar. As the two of them groped through the darkness in search of UFOs, Betty mistook the signal light of an approaching train for a spaceship and called down the tracks, “Hello, little friends!”

I surely wasn’t the only student who took comfort in the genial omnipresence of the Milliken marriage. Anyone could tell they had the same faith in the power of learning, the same openness to discovery and amusement. How many of us could say the same of our parents? I wonder if they lay in bed at night, speculating on our troubles and triumphs. Oh, why even bother to ask?

After the Millikens’ retirement more than a quarter-century ago, the school dismantled much of what they’d built there. Latin ended with Frank’s tenure; he’d been nurturing the program for close to 30 years. Toward the end, as word spread that Latin was now a lame duck course of study, entering freshmen began to ask, “Why enroll if I can’t take four years?” The school’s decision must have stung, but bitterness was never Frank’s style. I’m sure he was punning until the last day. As for Eleanor’s projects, the space capsule and planetarium are history—to the indignation of graduates for whom they were a point of pride.

Sic transit gloria. Rome fell. The earth is ever-changing, as Eleanor taught us. New Hampshire’s geological emblem, The Old Man of the Mountain, collapsed one day in 2003, just like that. The gifts of great teachers endure for a lifetime. Not exactly forever, but long enough. Thank you, Eleanor and Frank.

Haven’t seen Monty Python’s Latin graffiti joke? Got a hankering to see it again? I did and I’m still chortling. Click here.


 Posted by Rona

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