There is always that one teacher in your past. That one person that if it weren’t for their presence in your life, you may not be the person you are today. I was fortunate to have that teacher when I entered the 5th grade.
Herman Bowden was one of the single most important people that I’ve ever met in my life. I can’t thank him enough for inspiring me to love learning and for making learning part of my life every single day. He was unique in my childhood experience. Coming from a small New England town in western Massachusetts let’s just say I did not know many persons of color. Mr. Bowden always had a smile on his face that made knowing him easy. He kept our classroom as a place that I wanted to come back to the next day, a lesson that as I grew up and became a teacher was the central core philosophy of my instruction. In his words, “If you are smiling and happy, learning will happen.”
That’s not to say that he didn’t have standards. In fact, Mr. Bowden challenged us to reach beyond our comfort zones, to try books that might have been a little bit beyond where we were as readers. He was demanding in his expectations that we gave our best every day. When he thought we weren’t living up to our end of effort, he let us know. But he also let us know that it was O.K. to want to learn, that it was O.K. to try things that you knew were beyond where you were at this particular moment. He gave me my copy of The Hobbit and instilled in me the confidence that I could read it.
I learned later in life that Mr. Bowden was also gay. It never mattered to me while I was a student of his, nor did it matter when I became an adult. I found out later in life that there were whispers in town and that more than one ‘concerned’ parent asked my mom if she thought it was a good idea that her sons were going to be in Mr. Bowden’s class because of his “particular life choices”. Thankfully my mom never cared for that kind of thinking. “He’s the best teacher in my book and that’s who my kids are going to have”, she would respond. That was that. Thank you, mom.
I often found myself going back to his classroom year after year to visit. I’d listen to the sound of his voice and how he worked a classroom. To be honest it was like watching a master artist painting a masterpiece. He had this way of speaking calmly that would command rapt attention from the kids sitting at their desks. Yet at the same time he had a sense of humor that could keep everyone giggling while never losing sight of getting to the end of the lesson for the day. Learning was suppose to be fun. And it was. It was suppose to be exciting. And it was. He would read out loud to us the stories we were reading and it always felt like he was reading it for the first time, too. His love of learning was infectious and as a result we wanted to learn more. It was because of this that so many of us developed a lifelong love of learning.
Our class all grew up and moved away. We became adults with adult lives. Some of us, myself included, would make a point to visit Mr. Bowden’s class when we came home for the holidays. He would always remember our names and give us a hug and a smile. In the late 1990s, I heard rumors that Mr. Bowden was sick. There were rumors that he had AIDS. When I went to visit him at school I didn’t want to believe that he looked thin, weak. I convinced myself that he was fine. He still smiled that big warm smile when I saw him and we shared a hug. He asked how I was and how was my brother and family were. I had no idea that was the last time I would see him.
Herman Bowden died on September 25th, 2002. At his memorial service at the local high school, many of his former students came to say good-bye. In the years that have passed since he left us, his work and vision of what school should be like lives on. I think that it was because of Mr. Bowden that I became a teacher. It is because of his kindness and humor that I believe that my classroom should be a place that when students go home at the end of the day, they should want to come back tomorrow.
Wherever you are Mr. Bowden, I want to thank you for being who you were, and for supporting all of your students to be who they were, too. You were, and still are, my greatest teaching inspiration.