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From the Publisher: Learning Curve

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Published August 17, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


© KELPFISH | DREAMSTIME
  • © Kelpfish | Dreamstime

To the extent that I can craft a well-written sentence, I owe it to a singular teacher at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.: Roy Simmons taught me and countless other 10th graders how to read books that made us think. We'd be encouraged to take a position and use precise language to defend it. The man read every word we wrote and was fully committed to the improvement of our written and oral communication. He was also the school's longtime debate coach.

Another beneficiary of Simmons' tutelage was Monique Taylor, the new provost and chief academic officer of Burlington's Champlain College. Her husband, Ken Ellingwood, works for Seven Days as a consulting editor. Earlier this year, Ken and I were at a coffee shop, talking about the difficulty of teaching writing, when I blurted, "Roy Simmons," with no explanation. I didn't expect the name would mean anything to Ken, but in that moment, I felt compelled to say it out loud. That's because I suddenly realized, 40-plus years after I graduated from high school, that Mr. Simmons was "the one" who gave me the skills to do this work. Yet I had never tried to locate the quiet, unassuming man — and thank him.

Ken looked stunned. "Roy Simmons?" he repeated the guy's full name with interest and intensity. It turns out his wife, Monique, and I went to the same high school — two years apart — and Simmons was her favorite teacher, too. She talked about him so much, in fact, that her husband instantly recognized the name. He was almost as excited about the coincidence as she was, when we finally got the chance to talk and compare notes.

"He changed lives. That's who he was," Taylor said of Simmons. She said his Socratic teaching methods shaped her as a student but, more importantly, influenced the kind of educator she became. A Yale University grad with a PhD in sociology from Harvard, she's worked all over the world and received numerous teaching awards.

She recalled getting up early to attend before-school sessions in which Simmons would explain what was wrong with a paper, and, if you were willing to do the work, he'd give you a chance to improve it. He taught her that "revising isn't just a thing that happens once; it's an engagement with writing. He made me really want to chase that process and not just settle for All right, I'm done with this paper, and I could hand it in ... It was fun working with him."

Taylor concluded: "I love teaching, and a lot of it comes from that man."

This week's Seven Days includes the fall "back-to-school" issue of Kids VT, our parenting publication. It's a good time to reflect on how incredibly influential teachers can be — especially as schools across the country, and in Vermont, are struggling to hire them.

Simmons was rumored to be a conscientious objector and a Christian. Where is he now? Not on social media. I called Whitman on Monday to inquire about him, but the answering machine wasn't working. None of the school administrators I emailed — including the principal and the business manager — responded.

Hopefully it's not too late to say the words that too often get lost in the swirl of building lives and growing families: Mr. Simmons, if you're alive and still reading — which, of course, you would be — thank you!