Thursday, May 11, 2006

Some recent photos

On the day of my father's funeral, we took a lot of pictures of the family. The first picture below is of Ann, Andrew, Abigail and me. The second one is of all my kids, Andrew, Abby, Stephen, Levi, and of course me.

Last week, the UW Board of Trustees honored Sara DeGroot, Chris Crowe, Brian DeLong and David Braz for their performances on the debate team this year. Although Braz looks like a serial killer in this picture, I'm still proud of him:

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Eulogy for my Father

Thomas Alvah Stannard, July 7, 1932-April 29, 2006

Thank you all for coming today to celebrate the life of Tom Stannard.

My father was the first intellectual I ever knew. The definition of “intellectual” is “of or associated with or requiring the use of the mind,” and “a person who uses their mind creatively.” Also, it’s a word that’s been turned into a kind of insult for quite some time now. If you’re an “intellectual” that must mean you don’t believe in a higher power; it must mean you’re a subversive, you aren’t patriotic, or, above all, you think you’re better than everybody else. My father was none of these. He was spiritual. He was patriotic (although, as my father proved, being patriotic doesn’t mean agreeing with everything your government does). He certainly did not think he was better than anyone else. Tom Stannard devoted the better part of his life, in fact, to giving the gift of intellect to those members of society most likely to be written off by the elite: children, often poor children, children of immigrants, sometimes children of illegal immigrants. And in this time of national conversation over who is an “American” and who is entitled to social goods, it seems fitting to remember that my father, a teacher, may have had his opinions about national immigration policy, but as with all his political opinions, they were checked at his classroom door. When he walked into his class, the only thing he cared about was giving his students the gift of the mind—the invitation to a contemplative, intellectual life—which he believed was available to each and every human being if they wanted it. He did not believe only white, English-speaking people could receive such gifts, nor did he believe that you had to be wealthy, or have wealthy parents, to be able to understand and appreciate Shakespeare, Aristophanes, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Tom Stannard was a complex, sometimes paradoxical person in his life, but a very simple, single-minded person in the classroom: He wanted to take each set of kids he taught—white, Black, Asian, Latino, poor, or middle class—and help them become intellectuals. Help them appreciate books. Help them appreciate the ability of the mind, and the ability of humanity’s vast body of literature, to address the complex problems of everyday life and civilization.

My father gave me several unforgettable gifts. Two of them came in the form of books: A long time ago, he gave me the complete works of William Shakespeare. Dad was something of a Shakespeare-phile. One of the reasons he was so fascinated by Shakespeare was that “the Bard” was not a nobleman, not a university doctor, but a common, middle-class writer who ended up being the preeminent wordsmith of the English language. In fact, every once in a while you hear some cockeyed theory or another about how Shakespeare couldn’t have written as well as he did; it must have been some nobleman writing under a pseudonym. Dad and I talked about those theories once, and he answered them with that characteristic, unforgettable, sarcastic Tom Stannard disgust. You all know the kind of disgust I am talking about.

Because, as I said, Dad believed that the gifts of the mind were available to everyone. Shakespeare’s genius validated my father’s belief that no one was really better than anyone else. “We are all frail,” says Angelo in “Measure for Measure,” “frail” meaning prone to sin rather than ill of health. Or, following Antipholus in “The Comedy of Errors,” we are all merely drops of water, who find our significance in bonding with others:

“I to the world am like a drop of water,
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth
(Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself.”

The second great gift my Dad gave me, more recently, was a complete collection of Arthur Connon Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Dad was a Sherlock Holmes fanatic and even when I was very small he would sit me in front of the television when a Holmes movie was on. For Sherlock Holmes, grand truths were found in small details, and no client’s story or personal tragedy was beneath the great detective’s concern. Those will always be virtues I associate with my father. Now, I have become a Holmes fan myself, and an image of my Dad is in every encounter I have with the great detective: Dad peers over my shoulder as I read, and his unforgettable impersonation of Holmes is the voice I hear when the great detective speaks. I can hear his voice when Doyle writes in “The Red-Headed League,” “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence.” And, when Holmes, speaking of learning in “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” says “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.”

The third great gift I received from my Dad was to watch him teach, to sit in his classroom and see him work his magic with junior high students. I remember telling someone about my Dad and they said with awe, “junior high students! How did he do it?” I wish I knew. For a year, between jobs, I was a substitute teacher and I dreaded going to the middle schools. But Dad couldn’t have been any more comfortable. When I watched him, he held the class in rapt attention discussing metaphors, how to make imagery concrete, how to give words multiple meanings, how to make language beautiful. Tom Stannard believed in making words beautiful, and furthermore believed in sharing those gifts with a section of the population we would rather forget existed: junior high students in general, and in Dad’s career, economically and culturally marginalized students. Children of immigrants. My father, who was cynical about all politics, fought against the Immigration and Naturalization Service when they attempted to remove “illegal” children from his classroom. In his classroom, no one was “illegal.” He designed and implemented after-school programs for “latch-key” kids. He oversaw gifted and talented programs for students who did not have the economic and cultural privileges to access such programs as birthrights. This was his life, his greatest pride, the epitome of everything he stood for.

I am a teacher. I will spend my life trying to be half the teacher my father was.

So today I am celebrating the life of Tom Stannard, intellectual. But not the kind of intellectual who sits in an ivory tower and plays analytical games. Rather, a human being of modest background who believes the contemplative life is available to all human beings. It’s a lesson those of us in the education profession need to hear again and again. My father, who lived to tear down the hubris and self-righteousness of hypocrites everywhere, reserved his most poisonous venom for those who would arbitrarily place some humans on pedestals higher than others. His was a labor of love, and in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Helena declares:

“Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”

Thank you, Dad, for giving me the gift of a mind.