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Backstory: Most Surprising Epilogue


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

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This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

Almost every week I share a "backstory" in Seven Days. My "From the Publisher" column, created to detail the struggles of this newspaper during the pandemic, is an inside peek at our local media business.

I also write about my personal life — experiences I've had in the past as well as things happening now. These pieces in particular seem to resonate with readers, whether I'm writing about swimming laps, taking a train to New York City or shopping for bras.

In August I penned a tribute to the Maryland public high school English teacher who taught me to write. The idea was prompted by the publication of back-to-school content in Seven Days as well as a more remarkable coincidence: The wife of one of our consulting editors had the same "best teacher," at the same school, and credits him for inspiring her to become an educator. Monique Taylor is now the provost and chief academic officer of Champlain College. Her husband, Ken Ellingwood, wrote the introduction to this year's backstory package.

I tried hard to reach Roy Simmons before I published the piece — a task complicated by the fact that his father and son have the same name. But I failed to find him through the alumni networks of Walt Whitman High School or on social media.

Until, of course, the column came out, and a fellow former student emailed me a link to his Facebook page.

I was glad for the confirmation that Mr. Simmons was alive and well. But the relief was replaced with shock when I saw that the quiet, unassuming man who coached the debate team and introduced us to literature was sharing posts from right-wing news and religious sources.

Monique's reaction: "Oooof. I can't scroll past '15 ways Satan's favorite lie ruins your world.'"

I screwed up my courage and messaged Simmons on Facebook with a link to my piece. His response was warm but formal. Later, we scheduled a phone call, in which I told him how shocked Monique and I were to see his views on social media.

We had both gotten the impression that he was a conscientious objector who had opposed the Vietnam War. Back in the '70s, when I went to high school, that usually suggested a left-of-center political ideology.

The anti-war bit was accurate, Simmons said on the phone. "I was liberal ... I voted for my share of Democrats," including Jimmy Carter. But now he's a Donald Trump supporter who believes the 2020 election "wasn't handled properly."

What happened? Simmons is a Christian — something I'd also guessed right in my original piece. Sometime in the '90s, he turned against the Democratic Party because he felt that it stopped reflecting his moral values. Those include opposition to abortion in all cases — except to spare the life of the mother — and homosexuality, which he described as "evil."

He believed as much throughout his teaching career, from 1968 to 2002. Notably, it didn't stop him from helping a debate student craft a persuasive oratory for same-sex marriage that won a county competition.

"It's not a teacher's job to insert himself into the beliefs of his student," Simmons said.

On that, at least, we agree.