Sunday, November 13, 2016

Guest Blogger: Ken Levit



[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Ken Levit, Class of 1983, excelled at heartfelt questioning, making him a treasure. He was terrific onstage, grappling with all kinds of issues about characters, staging, and plots. I once mentioned The Rolling Stones in English class. Amazed, he asked, “You mean your Rolling Stones were our Rolling Stones?” and pinpointed a teenager's time frame for me. During another class, his frustration rising, he asked, “Can’t we read anything happy?” The Classics made no allowances for joy. Realizing, then, why student writing was wooden, I made space for personal essays where their life experiences could shine in their writing. Ken, a magnificent influence, challenged me often and well. To his everlasting credit.]

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I really didn’t want to do this. I’m kind of sick of the voices in my own head about Holland Hall and high school.

I’m not sure why.

Perhaps it’s a sense of guilt that I still don’t fully appreciate. How lucky I was to go there. How I never even thanked my parents for the chance.

HH was exactly what I wanted.

At Barnard Elementary, they said the kids at HH had REALLY long arms because they carried so many books. I thought that sounded perfect for me since I loved books. Years later, I am stunned by how narrow our world was there. How cruel it could be. Maybe that’s always the case for those tough years. A Separate Peace. That’s a question I have.

I’m doing this because of the person who asked me to do it. Ms. Clark. Wow. She might have been the best teacher I ever had.

But I really couldn’t tell you why. I don’t think she ever actually taught me anything specific. There was nothing I ever learned directly from her. And it wasn’t like she ever directly intervened in my life or helped me through a personal situation. Yet somehow, somewhat mysteriously, she looms in my head in a big way.

She once did something that blew me away.

We were in class. A typical English class for us. Were there even ten of us? But we—mainly the guys—started cracking jokes about gay people, reciting descriptive names we thought were funny. It built and built. And then Ms. Clark stepped quietly to the corner and put her head in it with her back to us. It was strange. It was certainly unnerving. I think we asked her why she had done this. She said, into the wall if I remember it correctly, "Because I have friends who are gay people."

Her pain radiated. I felt it. I was ashamed of myself.

It's truly incredible that we even had to be taught that, but it was practically a foreign concept for me in 1981. But it wasn’t totally foreign either. It felt wrong even then, but she called us on it in a deep way.

What’s a good teacher?

In my current job at a private foundation, that subject arises in a clinical way. All sorts of smart folks try to create the models and the assessments. But, when I think about my great teachers at Barnard or HH or even in university and law school, there is basically one unifying feature. They were honest with us, treated us with respect and built a relationship with us.

That’s a pretty basic thing: caring relationships built on honesty and mutual respect. If I learned that, it’s even better than the long arms.


***

Ken Levit is Executive Director of George Kaiser Family Foundation.

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11 comments:

  1. Ken--Loved reading about some of your experiences at HH and with KHC. Was there ever a kinder, gentler person to show us a good way to live and treat people? Your image of her standing with her head in the corner was such an impactful way to teach us. We are certainly better for it.

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  2. This doesn't happen often, but I don't know what to say except thank you.

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  3. Very moving, Mr. Levit. As teenagers, our handle on the world is tenuous at best. We're so wrapped up in ourselves, discovering ourselves, that it's challenging to feel empathy for others. I, too, am thankful for teachers like Ms. Clark who remain inside their students' heads and hearts long after the classroom door closes.

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    1. Although I wasn't always sure of it at the time, I see now that this school was the best possible place for me. I was in good hands with these kids.

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  4. Thank you Ken Levit, for a nicely written piece. You and I didn't know each other (I graduated in '78), but I also came to HH from Barnard Elementary. Most likely we knew some of the same teachers there, too. But I'd agree with you that Karen may well have been the best. --Charlie Morrow

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    1. If I was any good at all, it was because great students like you and Ken were never afraid to challenge me. At every turn, you forced me to be better.

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  5. Kenny,
    Thank you for writing this. I think we were in the same English class. I remember that day; the words, the ribbing, and Karen's reatction. Amazing what lingers, and much has lingered for me, not all of it easy to look back on. I am so glad that you and my sister Patty worked together on Capitol Hill. She really liked you and her very positive experience at HH helped me see another side of the place. My students now, so different; they are trans and queer and black and white and so able to talk and reflect. Their courage astounds me. I wish I was that brave at that age. Yes, Karen was amazing on so many levels. I learned much and gained much by her presence, grace and style. An amazing woman. x

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    1. Each time I receive a guest blogger's reflection, I am astounded. But, when I think about it, not really. Even back then, I knew you were all sensational. I just had to learn when to hold your feet to the fire and when to look the other way. How lucky I was to be challenged by each of you.

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    2. Bill, You WERE Brave! I remember your art project that decorated the Field Goals with cool bright fabric. Am I getting the details correct?

      Ken, thank you for article.

      LOVE you KHC. How lucky is Maggie?!!!!

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    3. You're so generous, Kelley. My 7 years at HH were a parenting tutorial I hadn't bargained for. You were all excellent teachers.

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  6. Bill-- means a lot to me to hear from you. Yes, I can imagine you being in that room that day. All the more powerful to think of how a moment in time goes down in an infinite number of ways. Maybe let's be in touch. Kenlevit@gmail.com hug to Patty too.

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