Today’s post is inspired by this week’s episode of the 10 Things to Tell You podcast. Are you listening to this gem from Laura Tremaine? Each week she’s trying to start a conversation around a different prompt. She wants you to take the question to your journal, your girlfriends, or even social media and start talking. Naturally I love anything that sparks dialogue, whether silly or serious, and this week’s prompt, “Tell me about your teachers,” sparked an immediate response. So, here we are.
The class was senior AP English. The teacher, Dr. Langlas. Or Doc as he was most affectionately referred to. Doc was the head of the English department, a beloved teacher and tae kwan-do instructor. He was slight in stature and gentle in spirit. He always reminded me of an Irish writer from days of old. I could see him smoking a pipe outside of a pub as he penned the next great Irish novel. His eyes were kind and his voice oozed love and acceptance. He delighted in things, students, literature, his job. You felt safe in his presence and wanted to please him. Though I never saw him raise his voice or even, frankly, express a sternness in manner, he also never seemed to have any sort of disciplinary issues in his classroom. Now, this was also helped by the fact that I had him for AP English which was a class of overachievers who typically did not act out, but still. You wanted to please Doc. You wanted him to approve. His son was in my class in high school and the two were our student/faculty commencement speakers, a moment that I think was a real highlight for him.
I know that I loved his class. His style was very discussion based. Though now, having been on the other side of the classroom as a teacher, I am certain he always had a plan for class each day, it never felt like it. It always seemed like he just showed up, looked at each of us and somehow knew the conversation that needed to happen that day and then let us run with it. You never really knew what the day’s lesson would bring but you knew it would bring out something valuable in you. His classroom was the safety net where we figured out life’s big questions, through literature, and more importantly, learned that some of those questions have no answers.
And yet, when I think of Doc it is not these moments in his classroom that left the indelible mark on me. It was another moment, a few years after high school graduation that changed my course.
In college sometime after my freshman year I decided to change my major to English so that I could become a high school English teacher. I had all sorts of grand plans to teach advanced courses and dialogue about literature and life with the brightest and best high school minds and I told Dr. Langlas as much when I shadowed him during winter break my sophomore year of college. I'm pretty sure I had the embarrassing audacity to say something along the lines of "I know I'll probably have to teach some regular classes, but I mostly want to just teach the advanced kids so I can have the kinds of discussions we used to have in your class." To Doc’s credit, he didn't call me out for the ridiculous snobbery I'd just displayed, but instead he just sort of nodded and agreed that those classes were fun to teach. "But," he said, "I really want you to come see my remedial English class-that's really where the good stuff happens."
And so I observed that class, which was so different from the A-level English classes I'd taken throughout high school. The kids were more timid, less confident. They shuffled into class with their heads down and didn't show the un-earned comfortability in an academic setting that my peers in I in the A level classes had. I don't even remember what Dr. Langlas taught that day, but I will never forget how he introduced me to each of his students and shared one thing that they were really good at with me. I remember in particular the way he bragged effortlessly about the artistic abilities of one of the more withdrawn girls and they way she seemed to come alive under that praise, the way she sat up straighter and looked me in the eye.
Doc cared so much about his students and he had that incredible ability to bring the best out of all of them. He was an incredible encourager, able to find something positive and good in every student. That day, seeing the way Dr. Langlas was able to encourage and lift up the students whom are most often overlooked and who themselves lack any real self-confidence completely changed my objectives in education. After that break I changed course, and instead committed to teaching in inner city schools with students who were most in need of teachers who could do what Dr. Langlas did so easily. I taught in Brooklyn, NY and Chicago and I tried so hard to love and encourage my students the way my beloved teacher had with his.
I'm not teaching any more, but I feel so passionately about educating and encouraging the students who are overlooked and forgotten. If I ever do get back in the classroom, I don't know if I'll ever be able to be the Honors level teacher I originally set out to be. Dr. Langlas’ quiet, steadfast example changed that for me and I am so very grateful. I mean, don't get me wrong, he was an incredible AP English teacher and that class will always be the best class I took in high school. I learned so much from him and will never forget his patience and gentle encouragement, his brilliant wisdom and the way he used literature to teach me the important things I needed to know about the world before I went out into it alone. But what he showed me that winter break will always mean more.
Dr. Langlas died unexpectedly this past fall. I sent this story to his son. Doc’s death was felt deeply and widely in our community. He meant a lot to many people. I know I’m not the only one whose life was changed inside and outside of his classroom. Here’s to the teachers that empower and encourage, that champion and praise, that bring out the best in their students.
Thank you Dr. Langlas.