Jack Stahl — a longtime biology teacher at Bedford Junior High and Staples High Schools — died Sunday in Durham, Connecticut. He was 87.
Suzy Thompson — a 1988 Staples graduate who now is a marriage and family therapist in the Bay Area, and is starting a transitional housing program for foster youth 18-21 — recalls her former instructor with fondness and honesty. She writes:
Jack Stahl was my biology teacher at Staples in 1987. Among the many good teachers at Staples, he was truly one of the great ones.
Mr. Stahl authentically engaged every day with his students — making the more challenging ones (like me) even pay attention.
Every class started with a few minutes of banter, usually about sports. It always included some friendly teasing, acknowledgement of our athletes in class who had performed well in a game the day before or his review of the school play.
Occasionally he would grace us with wisdom passed along courtesy of Mrs. Stahl. It was a nice 5 minutes he gave of himself before each class started while we settled down.
His devotion went beyond the 4 walls of his lab. 1987 was the last year smoking was permitted in the courtyard for students. Mr. Stahl saw me out there one day puffing away. Through the glass walls of the cafeteria our eyes locked.
A former smoker, he walked right over to me. He took the cigarette out of my hand and smashed it into his palm, saying, “You are too smart for this. Don’t ever let me see you smoking again.” He handed me the smashed cigarette and walked away.
I did not find my inner student or appreciation for school until much later in college, courtesy of a long overdue, unknown in 1987 diagnosis of a learning disorder. Somehow, I even made it through graduate school and have worked for 25 years with kids who had similar struggles.
I was hard to contain in high school, with this undiagnosed issue making it difficult for me to focus and succeed. At a school like Staples, surrounded by my honor roll group of friends, my self-esteem was very low. Disengaging from class was my only defense. My own teaching stint many years later (AP Psych and World History) made me that much more aware and appreciative of Mr. Stahl’s firm, but caring and patient, interventions with me. He was funny too.
One day, during one of my routine “bathroom” trips, he came out to find me. He and I both knew I was not going to the bathroom. He caught me smooching my boyfriend in the science building. He said, “Ms. Thompson, this is not the kind of biology you need to be engaged in right now.” He marched me right back to my seat.
For me, teachers were annoying and even scary; people to avoid as much as possible because I knew I couldn’t give them what they wanted from me. I had long since stopped even trying. Mr. Stahl never scared or annoyed me in the slightest.
In fact, I really liked him a lot. That made me want to try hard for him. He was one of the very small handful of teachers who kept me engaged through the tiny crack of hope in the door. He did this in his mildly unconventional way, but it worked. I accepted my hard-earned C with pride.
I wish I had gone back to find him to tell him how I felt about him, and what his nearly miraculous accomplishment with me was. I hope Mrs. Stahl and family read this, so at least they know about this one challenging kid he reached.
That kid — me — grew up to reach hundreds in a similar manner to Mr. Stahl. I’m a little unconventional myself. Like Mr. Stahl, whatever it takes.
It’s easy for a good student to pay tribute to a teacher, but not so much for a poor one who was afraid of and avoided teachers at all cost. I can’t even think of another teacher I would honor in this way. Just the great Mr. Stahl.
Rest in Peace.