Talk Story


Tuesday, May 7, 2002

Everybody remembers
life-changing teachers

EACH YEAR, I look forward to helping to select Wallace Rider Farrington Scholars from among the top graduates at the Kalihi high school named after the Territory of Hawaii's sixth governor.

In 1897, W.R. Farrington left the Honolulu Advertiser and joined the Evening Bulletin. After a merger with the Hawaiian Star in 1912, Farrington became publisher of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. His son, Joseph Rider Farrington, Hawaii's delegate to Congress from 1943 to 1954, succeeded him as publisher.

Joe and his wife, Betty, established the scholarship in the governor's name shortly after World War II, and the Star-Bulletin is still involved in selecting students for the honor.

As usual, this year's crop of candidates was a bright and hard-working group of over-achievers. One stood out, not because of four years of solid achievement, but because his grades showed he'd barely gotten by as a freshman. Then, something happened.

SEONG KYU WHANG began his high school career at Farrington with a mix of B's and C's and a grade point average that didn't crack 3.0 on a four-point scale. For him, high school was a bore. Then, despite lackluster grades, Whang found himself in Ellen Manago's sophomore honors English class.

Manago, faculty advisor for The Governor, Farrington's award-winning newspaper, challenged Whang, and he responded. She recalls his insight was "far beyond what I had experienced with other students."

"I recall one particularly impressive multigenre research project based on John Steinbeck's novel 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" she said. "He composed journals, poems, newspaper articles and essays to tell the story of the Joad family, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression."

Energized by his English class, Whang boosted his GPA by a half-point his sophomore year. He had discovered the excitement of learning. Junior year, he earned straight A's. As a senior he's on track to repeat that achievement, despite a schedule that includes college-level courses in calculus and English.

"In 29 years of teaching, I have had only a few students whom I can call truly outstanding," Manago said, "and Seong is one of them."

If you ask Whang, however, Manago deserves the credit. She was the one who pushed, who cared and who taught the material in a way that made it matter.

ACCORDING TO David Shribman, author of the new book "I Remember My Teacher -- 365 Reminiscences of the Teachers Who Changed Our Lives," people everywhere are willing to talk at length about teachers who changed their lives.

Memorable teachers "are the ones who cared and the people who pushed them," Shribman told National Public Radio.

When he set out to gather stories for his book, he expected that the best and brightest students would have the best stories, but that wasn't the case. "Lousy students had really good stories as well, and they are (just) as dedicated as nuclear physicists to their teachers."

Sharon Walsh, whom Shribman interviewed for his book, remembers her teacher John Bremner, who once shamed her in front of the entire class, holding up a paper she'd turned in and declaring, "Miss Walsh, this is a mediocre paper, and you are not a mediocre person."

"I think of that all the time," Walsh says, years later.

THIS IS National Teacher Appreciation Week.

I had a high school teacher who changed both my attitude toward learning and my life. His name was Donald Campbell and he, too, taught English -- all that dreadful, sissy stuff: the romantic poets, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and worse.

Campbell had been an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. He was no sissy. His enthusiasm was contagious, and most of the class came down with a serious case of literary appreciation. I never got over mine.

Because of Campbell, I can still recite most of T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," and I ended up with a career in newspapers.

Thanks, Mr. Campbell.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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