I thought that rather than sending flowers, a better way to show appreciation for my high school history teacher was to go to his graveside service.
The last time I saw John Fiandt was at graduation over forty years ago. I was fortunate to have been in his class not only for American History in the eleventh grade, but for Social Studies in junior high (not yet enlightened to the name of middle school).
I remember getting a C on his first assignment. We had to choose a current events article and tell what we thought about it. “This article was very newsworthy, and I learned a lot about the war in India and Pakistan that I didn’t know before.” That was an answer for which I could have filled in the blank for anything I read. I’m surprised he didn’t throw it in the trash. I wasn’t used to writing opinions, at least in detail — up to then I suppose my excellent and caring teachers had been working more on the RC in RCASE (recall, comprehension, analysis, synthesis and evaluation) than on the higher order skills.
My responses gradually improved. Good thing, because most of his tests were essays. From class discussion (yes, it was the Socratic Method) and the books he assigned us to read, I learned a lot about history, but also that I needed to question why people acted the way they did. I didn’t learn how to think (when someone says this it irritates me to no end) or what to think, but to just to think. About things in my own style. And to consider the views of others. I liked Mr. Fiandt’s dry sense of humor, and we all knew he cared about us.
Ultimately I taught in a fifth grade classroom for twenty-five years, only half of his long career. I remembered his questioning, his encouragement to read, and the example of just being different. I looked at my kids the way he used to look at us: with amusement, with understanding, with…what? Expectation? What would they say next? What would they THINK next?
During a snowstorm early this year, I sent him a copy of my recent book, thinking he might appreciate that one of his students tried to write something about history. I’m sure others of us have produced more extensive and illuminating volumes. I got a thank you note the next week. He’d enjoyed reading it and thought I was a good writer. He said he’d always “trumpeted” Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments as president. And that another teacher I’d mentioned as a positive influence, Thelma Hepner, had been a dear family friend. He was interested to know about my family, and the book about World War I that I’d said I was working on. Then, two months later, he was gone.
Mr. Fiandt never married, but judging from others’ remarks, he had a very large family: students from thirty-two years at the high school, and from twenty years at the local university.
At his service a friend told me that Mr. Fiandt had considered Edmund Morris’s trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt to be the finest biographies he’d ever read. That is saying A LOT. He had a legendary library, part of which he was always loaning out, especially to his young charges. John Fiandt had several things in common with Edmund Morris: scholarship, frankness, wit, polish, professionalism, and a generous spirit. Always inviting others to think. The lesson continues.