Forty years ago, perhaps exactly forty years ago, I stood in the doorway of my dorm room at a small school in Florida and absorbed what can best be described as a tirade. Though the transgression itself was a minor one, I had presumed to argue the merits of the rule I had violated. The result was cyclonic. The teacher, a theatrical southerner noted for his dynamic classroom performances and his ability to terrify inattentive students, brought such volume and intensity to his task that I can hear and see him still.
Dan Leslie Bowden possessed the rare magic of inspiring reverence and fear without requiring the latter to achieve the former. One did not want to fail him and one certainly did not want to affront him. I had done both but was aware then only of the affront. I understood many years later that the affront was far less important than the failure and that the vein-popping display of fury, the stentorian, “Learn some humility, Maksik!” had less to do with my immediate arrogance than his cumulative disappointment in my wasteful lack of engagement as a student.
Truth be told, ‘lack of engagement’ would have been generous. I did as little work as possible, made plans for weekends and a second girlfriend, played whatever sport was in season and did not trouble myself about the future. Mr. Bowden, on the other hand, lived in a dorm room, taught every class with passion and, had I bothered to notice, with brilliance. He directed plays; he was our “dorm-master” and an enlivening presence in our daily lives. It seems, in other words, that he troubled himself very much about my future and those of the other boys cruising through a sun-drenched south Florida life during that 1960-61 school year.
Mr. Bowden had been at the school for eight years when I arrived as an entering senior (Yes, there had been other schools, but that’s another story.) and was justly famous as its emblematic teacher. Many of his students, I am certain, were brilliant or at least conscientious and rewarded his work with work of their own, his zeal with earnest effort. I wish I could say that I was jolted out of my happy lethargy by Mr. Bowden and inspired to new academic heights in a quest to fulfill my cursed ‘potential.’ I wish I could say I even flirted with such self-awareness. Alas, I can say nothing of the sort and I wandered toward graduation and college (well, junior college anyway) and the rest of what I blithely assumed life would provide. And yet…
And yet…several years later when—in the face of most odds in the universe—I had become a teacher, and Mr. Bowden came to visit me in California, I was enormously proud of what I had achieved. And yet…in the spring of 1987, on a trip to Florida, I proudly took my son to meet Mr. Bowden, eager to surprise him with the news that I was applying to be the Headmaster of a small school in Idaho after an already long and successful school career. And yet…when I read last year in the school’s alumni magazine that Mr. Bowden had turned seventy, still at his post and now an icon after nearly fifty years, I wrote him a long letter. It seems something had, after all, penetrated the fog.
I am sure Mr. Bowden taught me some poetry and a bit about books, though I remember very little; as I said, I wasn’t much of a student. I am sure he worried about his students being prepared for college, the glaring gaps in our literary education, and about our ability to write well enough to survive. I am equally sure there were parents in the school with their own ideas who clamored for more or less of something. Those parents had grown up during the depression and lived through World War II into the prosperous hiatus of the fifties; I suspect they thought we all had things a bit easy and passed the word along to the Headmaster. And, of course, I know my own parents worried about “what would become of me.” I suspect Mr. Bowden tried to reassure them. From this distance, I can see how all of that may have transpired and I understand the integrity of a man whose rigorous standards as a teacher never obscured his knowledge of what might really matter in the lives of his students. Even if I was a bit hazy about the distinctions between an anapest and a dactyl, Mr. Bowden always said he knew I would do good things.
He and I had dinner together last month in Boston and soon I will return to Florida for a reunion of the Class of 1961. I really haven’t time to go, but I will. I will go because I may owe a life in schools to Mr. Bowden, and surely he taught me what is most important about teaching. Dan Bowden was not and is not a teacher of books. He is a teacher of boys and girls and whatever he saw in me, I learned to see in myself. I will go also because I want to tell him how well I learned that lesson in humility. What could be more humbling than how profoundly a teacher can affect a life?
It has been ten years since I wrote the preceding essay, really a long note of gratitude. Dan Leslie Bowden is, after fifty-six years, still at the school, a beacon for hundreds of his former students who think of him across the time and distance they have traveled.
Last month, I returned for my class’s fiftieth reunion. We all, with an array of younger classes, wanted to see and be remembered by Mr. Bowden, to witness perhaps his wild and penetrating humor; his thunderous Georgia accented voice, calibrated to make us laugh or blush.
We were not disappointed. He remembered all of us, teased those he knew could take it—he has lost none of his formidable wit—and gracefully gentled others. He performed his role as icon and sage, satirist and critic, with aplomb—and as we all had hoped.
But he also taught an hour-long poetry class to fifty or so former students. He did not stride about the room, as once he would have, nor are we adolescents desperate either to avoid his gaze or to earn it. We are bankers, lawyers, men and women of business. I was an English teacher and the headmaster of a school; I have taught my own poetry classes and seen my share of brilliant teachers. I was there to watch, to join in the nostalgic fun.
And he did spend part of the hour being Mr. Bowden. Yet, there was a moment when the performance stopped, when the poetry and the teacher coalesced, as it sometimes can.
He read (though he knew them from memory) poems by Emily Dickinson and then a poem by Theodore Roethke. There was no other sound than his deep southern voice and when he finished, silence. He looked around the room and then asked what we might make of the poem. I raised my hand, hoping to be the first student he called on.
Images: From top, the writer in 1972 in the classroom at Beverly Hills High School; a recent photo of Jon Maksik with Dan Bowden.
Other articles by Jon Maksik