Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow

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9780982018316: Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow

For 35 years, Edwin Barlow taught mathematics at his beloved Horace Greeley High School in Upstate New York. For 35 years, thousands of students passed through his classroom. Yet when he died, he remained as much an enigma as the day he arrived, for he deliberately shrouded his life in rumor and mystery.

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Book Description:

I probably read more books than some people have hot meals. Most are well-crafted, no author with an ounce of sense would send me a book that is not. Very occasionally, though, I get something that is truly outstanding. "Teacher Of The Year" is in that class. Even though the year is still young, I just know that this book is going to make my annual top 10 list.

Who was Edwin Barlow? That's a great question. To many people he is a complete unknown, to those that knew this enigmatic character he was either your mentor, or tyrant depending on your view. He was a teacher, and a teacher from the old school. I suffered through the English Grammar School system, and I am pretty certain my Latin and English teachers were related to Edwin Barlow.

Edwin Barlow was also the first person to be awarded the `Teacher Of The Year' title. I know author Lawrence Meyers through some Internet email interactions. He is one smart cookie. And Edwin Barlow was one of his high school teachers.

Lawrence has worked long and hard on this biography. Mister Barlow was a deeply private person, and a man that deserves to be recognized. He shunned attention, he lived a monastic life, he terrified his students, and he likely was the best teacher in living memory. He lived the life of a pauper with few possessions, yet in death it was revealed that his estate was more that $400,000, most of which went to help an educational foundation.

Lawrence has taken a novel approach to the format of this book. "Part One: The Mister Barlow I Knew" is exactly that. It is Lawrence's own high school memories and also their relationship afterwards. Some of the stories had me in stitches. Mister Barlow comes across as a tyrannical despot bent on terrorizing his pupils. He had a particularly interesting bedside manner, referring to students that displeased him, which was a frequent occurrence, as `vegetables' or `clods'. My favorite quote though has to be, "Ms, Jones only prostitutes wear purple, get out of my class!"

Somehow I doubt that these tactics could be used in schools these days.

"Part Two: The Mister Barlow You Knew" is a collection of stories by other people who knew him, both as former students, and also colleagues and contemporaries. Once again he comes across as an enigma. Little is revealed about the private life of the man. He seemed to spend virtually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, skulking in his lair at Horace Greenly High School. On Sunday mornings, for example, he could be found at his desk doing the New York Times crossword.

"Part Three: The Mister Barlow Nobody Knew", pulls the veil aside. Lawrence, through grit and determination, followed every lead he could find, and eventually started to unearth the strange story of Edwin Barlow. A World War II veteran, wounded twice. A man with deep-seated religious beliefs who, for a time, gave serious thought of becoming a member of the clergy. A plan dashed by his experiences in the war, Edwin Barlow could not in good conscience join the cloth with blood on his hands. Education became his chosen profession.

The final part of the book, "Understanding Mister Barlow..." analyzes the enigma through his readings and writings. Much can be gleaned about a man by the books he read. Edwin Barlow had a real passion for "Alice In Wonderland". In fact, in a rare interview, when asked if he could be anyone in the world, his reply was Lewis Carroll.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a fabulous story, and the quality of writing is excellent.

From the Publisher:

For 35 years, the profound, explosive classroom methods of the beloved and feared instructor, Edwin "Blackie" Barlow (1922-1990), dazzled students at Horace Greeley High School. During that time, he buried any trace of his redemptive life story behind a set of ever-shifting personas. Now, Lawrence Meyers - a veteran television writer-producer (Picket Fences, The Pretender, The Outer Limits, Crossing Jordan) and entrepreneur (PDL Capital, Inc) - reveals the truth behind the "Blackie Riddle" in Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow. The mysteries probed include how he came to Greeley; the rumored fiery car accident which killed his family; the unknown location of his abode; why he had no material possessions; why he willed his entire estate to charity; why he vanished to Boston on weekends and Portugal in the summer; and even why he carried a copy of Alice in Wonderland everywhere.

The book also examines the method behind his controversial style. "Mister Barlow didn't tolerate intellectual laziness, often verbally disemboweling us for any error," Meyers recalls, "but what nobody understood at the time was that he was preparing the wealthy students of Chappaqua, literally, for war - as befit his own experience".

Meyers spent ten years pursuing the truth because, "I became obsessed with understanding who he was. Why did he deliberately misinform us about his past? Why permit, and even foster, the myths? How could such a fierce classroom presence show such generosity and caring in private? I knew the answers would provide unforgettable life lessons".

Barlow's aesthetic lifestyle gave little for the author to go on. "I literally had nothing but scraps of paper with which to begin my investigation", said Mr. Meyers. "Fortunately, Mister Barlow left behind a rich oral history accessible through former students, faculty, and his surviving brother, Albert".

Meyers also reveals that Barlow was a devout Catholic whose faith was shattered in World War II. "He rediscovered faith by accepting God's forgiveness for his wartime acts. In the process, he formulated his educational philosophy - help students realize themselves. To him, this was equivalent to guiding kids to find the Divine within."

Edwin Barlow willed his entire $500,000 estate to the charitable Horace Greeley Scholarship Fund, which grants need-based financial aid to college-bound students. The extraordinary bequest generated articles in The New York Times (1/20/91; Ina Aronow), and The Reporter Dispatch (1/8/91; Steven J. Stark).

Surviving brother Albert Barlow, who lost touch with his older sibling following their mother's death in 1950, says, "With this book, the fifty-eight missing years were wiped out in a flash. This book isn't just about my brother, it is my brother".

In addition, the book is filled with stories of how Mr. Barlow used literary references to punctuate lessons; how he regaled students with his sly wit, and details some of his extraordinary tongue-lashings of lackadaisical students. "His classes were not merely invitations to learn", said former Greeley Vice-Principal Larry Breen, "they were command performances".

Steve Kroft, a Greeley graduate and anchor of CBS' 60 Minutes adds, "The biggest problem with American education is we don't have nearly enough Mr. Barlow's".

"In summary", Mr. Meyers said, "His is a remarkably human tale -- the story of a man whose dreams and faith were shattered by war, how he became utterly devoted to teaching, and subsequently rebuilt his life to become an inimitable force in American educational history".

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