When we were in 9th grade, Steve was already known as one of the smartest kids in the class. His outstanding intellectual powers – ability to grasp concepts quickly and apply them – were apparent in every class he attended. He was a modest kid, not self-conscious – yet he also knew he was special.
It was in our social studies class that I first became aware of Steve's drive for integrity and high academic standards. Our teacher, Mr. Charles Russell, in order to instill in us the value of reading newspapers, would have one of us lead the class each week to review local, state and national happenings. As you might suppose, Steve's hand was always raised to offer an explanation or some insight into “current events” no matter where they took place, or who was involved. He was involved, he was intense, and he really cared. It was obvious that whatever Steve chose to do in life, he would be successful.
When it was my turn to lead the class, that is, to introduce a particular topic, I made up my mind to call on those kids who usually didn't get a chance to speak. So I would introduce the topic, for example, of how Washington was spending money on some effort, and the kids were expected to raise their hands to expand on that topic. So, topic after topic, Steve would raise his hand – be the first one to raise his hand, mostly. Yet, true to my intention, I would call on anyone and everyone else to speak. Soon Steve began to wave his hand to get my attention, and half stood out of his chair to make his point. But I half-whispered over the heads of the less enthusiastic kids that I would call on him in a minute. That time never came because Mr. Russell stopped the session just before class ended.
As the kids were clamoring to get out of the classroom, Steve came up from behind me and sternly wanted to know why I hadn't called on him. I apologized and explained that he always gets to speak, and I wanted to give that opportunity to others. He gave me a long look, said nothing and walked away, never to speak of it again. It never came between us.
Of course there was no advantage in participating every week during current events. Mr. Russell certainly wasn't tracking students like Steve. And conversely, impressing the teacher wasn't Steve's purpose. In a class that was beyond the core interests of most of us, he demonstrated a profound, intellectual and personal relationship with the world outside our narrow classroom, and a lifelong commitment to intellectual honesty and professional rigor that gave him a seat next to the top practitioners in his chosen profession.
More than a classmate, Steve modeled how to “do” school – for those who were paying attention. And set an unfailing standard for anyone, like me, who had limited educational precedents at home.
I have always had him in my thoughts, and he will remain there – gratefully.