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Thisby Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times is a tribute to Alan Kaplan, a high school teacher of the humanities, who died at the end of August.
Some 500 former students attended his funeral, driving or flying from wherever they were.
One week ago, very early Sunday morning, Harvard University graduate student Jimmy Biblarz boarded a plane and flew from Boston to Los Angeles to attend a memorial service.
He knew he would have to fly back to Boston later that evening, which made for a grueling day, but Biblarz never had a second thought about making the trip.
The provocative, maddening, abrasive, endearing, passionate, controversial Hamilton High School teacher who tormented, challenged and ultimately inspired him, had died. So Biblarz and hundreds of other students who got the same treatment from history and philosophy teacher Alan Kaplan crowded into the un-air-conditioned school auditorium on a blistering afternoon to pay their respects.
“Each of us spends our time on this Earth trying to ensure we are remembered in death. Mr. Kaplan, you won,” Biblarz said in his eulogy. “You produced hundreds of activists, organizers, scholars, therapists, teachers and thinkers. Your effects are exponential.”
Steve Lopez is one of the few writers for the L.A. Times (add Michael Hiltzik) who understands that teachers are more than test-prep automatons, that they enlighten and inspire in ways that can’t be measured.
“People don’t show up 20 and 30 years later to pay tribute to teachers who helped them do better on standardized tests,” fellow Hamilton High teacher Barry Smolin said at the service, a tape of which was made available to me. “We are here because Alan Kaplan did what all great teachers do. He clarified, he inspired, he awakened, he worked in ways that are unquantifiable.”
As I watched the tributes, I was reminded that from Los Angeles to New York, we have endured years of bare-knuckle battles but reached no consensus on how to improve public schools. Public education is shamefully underfunded, some say, while others insist money is not the answer. You can find equally rabid supporters and critics of charter schools, and the new Common Core curriculum is either a breakthrough or a curse.
But wherever you stand on any of that, we can all go to school on how a teacher managed to touch so many lives in such profound ways, loyal to both his convictions and his students even as his stubborn independence drew critics and even landed him in trouble at times.
Some students were intimidated by Kaplan. Some administrators and fellow teachers found him irritating.
He flat-out refused to teach Advanced Placement history, arguing that the curriculum was a memorization drill that allowed for neither true teaching nor learning.
When he died at the early age of 60, students came from everywhere to thank Alan Kaplan for changing their lives.