Remembering Jack Stahl

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.

Jack Stahl

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.

Suzy Thompson

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.

7 responses to “Remembering Jack Stahl

  1. That’s a wonderful recollection Suzy. I never knew Jack Stahl but through your depiction, I can certainly appreciate his positive impact as a teacher. He would stand out even among the many great teachers out there.

  2. This is a beautiful tribute. A ripple makes a wave. Thank you for sharing. ❤️

  3. “Teacher” is the highest compliment we can pay someone in my opinion. It’s what happens in between the work of delivering an education, and much more valuable. Your heartfelt recollection of what guided you in your life’s work says little about learning Biology and everything about what a Teacher is. I wish I had gotten in touch with the “Teacher” in my life before he passed away and I would bet we all have such a “Teacher” in our lives. Thank you Suzy for reminding me of my Physics Teacher, you did it beautifully. Mr. Stahl would be very proud of his “best” student.

  4. I never had a class with Mr. Stahl at Bedford Junior High, but I had at least two with Mr. Boyle, whose classroom connected to Mr. Stahl’s and they often had a lot of interaction between the classes. Consequently, Mr. Stahl and I got to know each other because I was interested in science and he was always trying to get me to wrestle ( he helped coach the wrestling team). I wanted no part of wrestling. Flash forward to my senior year at Staples where Mr Stahl had started to teach – I was talking with a girl in the hallway of the science building (7 building?) when someone came up behind me and got me around the neck in a headlock. Thinking it was a friend kidding around, I threw an elbow and made solid contact and they made an “oomph” sound. The girl I was talking to yelled, “oh my God” because she could see that it was Mr. Stahl who was now doubled over trying to catch his breath. Through my profuse apologies all Mr. Stahl could say was that it was the perfect move and I shouldn’t be apologizing and was patting me on the back. I’m sorry I never had him as a teacher. He certainly put everything he had into teaching and helping students in and out of the classroom.

  5. Wonderful tribute. Seeing his face recalled some Bedford junior high memories.

  6. Bill Boyd (Staples '66)

    Suzy
    That is a wonderful tribute! You couldn’t have been more generous or insightful…well done!

  7. Michael Brennecke

    I had Mr Stahl in ninth grade at Bedford middle school. He told me early on that I was so ugly that I was kind of cute. I did not like him. At first. Took me a while to appreciate his sense of humor. He became one of a few best and favorite teachers. I’m glad he got to have a long career and life.

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