My experience with AP US History teacher Larry Wolf is best demonstrated with a story.
One day, early in the fall quarter of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting in the middle of Mr. Wolf’s 80-person A.P. United States History class. On the bus ride to school that morning I had heard Jim Cramer expound on his TheStreet.com podcast about the continually unhindered rise of ExxonMobil’s stock. Back in 2006, oil-above-$100-per-barrel was splashed across the headlines of American media. Mr. Wolf, being the topical man that he was, led our class with a discussion on this topic, which went a little something like:
Wolf: “The media keeps publishing all these reports about record high oil prices. What’s the big deal?”
A student raised his hand.
Student One: “The big deal is that high gas prices make life more expensive for us.”
Wolf: “More expensive? We’re talking about gasoline. You use it every day to go to and from school and those trips cost you maybe a dollar. Maybe it should be more expensive! Maybe $4.50 a gallon! Your parents would still buy it.”
Student Two remarked: “They’d buy it but they wouldn’t be happy about it.”
Wolf: “If they dislike the prices, they should do something about it. And they aren’t going to stop buying it.”
Student Two replied: “What can we do about it?”
Wolf looks at the second student then scans the room: “You tell me. What can you do about high oil prices? ExxonMobil making, what, six billion dollars this quarter? What can someone do about it?”
A third student: “We could ride our bikes?”
Wolf laughed: “Yeah, like everyone in the country will suddenly exercise on their way to work and send their cars to the dump. Come on, I’m looking for a better answer.”
The class sat in silence as 80 students tried to conjure solutions to a major socioeconomic problem in seconds. To me, the answer Mr. Wolf was looking for seemed obvious to me, but before I could answer, Student Four interjected: “You could write your congressmen to do something about oil prices?”
Wolf: “Write Congress? And ask them to do what? You want them more involved in running the oil companies? Come on people.”
I had the chance to raise my hand with what, to me, seemed like the logical answer. Mr. Wolf pointed toward me. “You could start your own oil company.”
Mr. Wolf exclaimed “Bingo!” to the class. I knew this would be a teacher I’d like.
Mr. Wolf fit the stereotype of the grizzled older teacher who shared his worldy wisdom in the most crotchety way possible. He walked with a cane for a few months and would whack students with it in the hallways. He’d tell students with late-homework excuses to “Quit your bitchin’” (spelled on the chalkboard as the school-appropriate “Kwitchurbichen”). He’d been teaching for decades and had a sort of tenure at the school due to the union, so he could get away with it.
Our fresh minds were unaware at the time that his best quotes were borrowed. That didn’t lessen the impact of lessons like “There ain’t no free lunch.” Wolf was bold enough to stretch our minds by expertly playing devil’s advocate. Lectures on World War II would one minute be centered on, “Why does anyone consider FDR a great president? He led us into the war!” and later, “FDR was the best, most universally loved president since Washington.” It didn’t matter which position Wolf believed himself; he wanted us to learn perspective.
His students have a better view of the world having sat in his class.
“Everything I came up with on my own sounded pretty lame or trite, so I’m borrowing from another source. I hope you can forgive the lack of originality, but it best represents how I want students to live their lives, because even though we all have within us the ability to be kind, we don’t always exercise that. I think we should ‘make a new rule of life…always try to be a little kinder than is necessary’ – J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird“ – Mrs. Guerrera when I asked her for a quote for this essay.
Mrs. Guerrera was the opposite of Mr. Wolf. When I entered her freshman English class in high school, Mrs. Guerrera was still a very young teacher maybe five years into her career. In retrospect, it was her English class which suffered the most from my growing indignation with the education system.
I earned a C or D in the third quarter of her year-long course. Years later, she remarked, “I didn’t want to give you that grade, but you didn’t do the work!” She was right. Up until that point, I had never been given enough work to push me, and here was finally someone who expected her students to learn. Sadly, this wasn’t something I realized until the end of high school.
Her real influence was outside the classroom. While I was in her class she had her first son, retired from teaching and became a stay-at-home mom. It was a loss for Hilliard Darby, but not for her previous students. She continues to take an active interest in the happiness and success of her former students. A core group of us have been continually welcomed in her home since leaving her classroom in 2004. For myself and others, a visit to the Guerrera household is like walking into an old 80s sitcom where the young kids sit down at a dinner table and resolve the problems of life. After leaving, you even feel like you’ve walked away with a happy episode-ending moral.
In juxtaposition to Mr. Wolf, Merry’s approach to teaching was not necessarily to forcibly stretch your mind with new ideas. Her equally effective approach was to make serious emotional investments in her students’ lives. For a student, knowing your teacher wants you to succeed is the best impetus to fulfilling your potential.