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Frank J. Dinan: Wonderful teachers richly influenced me

Four very special teachers played a vital role in shaping my life. My lifelong interest in science was sparked by my high school general science teacher, Howard Shaffer. As a freshman, I had little knowledge of or interest in science, but he quickly changed that by conducting many exciting demonstrations in his classes.

I remember my fascination with his demonstration of magnetic fields of force using a horseshoe magnet covered by a thin sheet of white paper. He sprinkled iron filings on the paper, and I watched in awe as they aligned themselves along the invisible force lines that flowed between the magnet’s poles. He made the invisible visible and wowed me, and his infectious enthusiasm ignited my lifelong love for science.

Later, I was fortunate enough to take a writing course from a wonderfully warm, inspirational teacher, Julia O’Meara. She gave me unprecedented freedom to write on virtually any topic I chose. At that age I loved novelist Damon Runyon’s writing. It was filled with wildly imaginative, comic New York characters, often gangsters, bookies and con men.

“Why don’t you write a story in Runyon’s style?” she suggested. I loved the idea. “How long should it be,” I asked, and her reply amazed me. “Write until you’re happy with the story.” Wow! I expected her to give me a specific word limit as all of my previous teachers had. I was stunned by the freedom she offered me and remember the fun I had creating characters and dialog for the story. I’m sure that Run-yon would not have been thrilled with my story, but I loved writing it, and Miss O’Meara kindly made me believe she loved reading it.

Dr. Constantine Yeracaris taught a college sociology course that, for me, was novel and insightful. Amazingly, he taught almost entirely without lecturing. Dr. Y regularly assigned outside readings, then led brilliant full-class discussions of them. We sat in a circle around the periphery of the room and he sat in the circle asking leading questions to get our discussions started and others to keep them on track. He led me to understandings of our society at levels I could never have attained without his guidance.

Dr. Y’s course gave me powerful insights into the hidden workings of our culture. What impressed me most, though, was that he achieved this goal not by telling us “the truth,” but by letting us create our own insights through the discussions that he led so well.

In my senior year, I took an anthropology class taught by Ray Lee Birdwhistle, who described himself as a “totally immersed in running water Baptist.” He was a gifted storyteller. His classes focused on tales based on his experiences while living among native people in widely diverse cultures across the world.

The cross-cultural insights he gave me into family structures, courting rituals, religious beliefs, creation stories and ancestor worship were marvels. His delightful combination of sensitivity, understanding, humor and insight greatly broadened my worldview.

I have chosen these four from among the many fine teachers I have had because they influenced me so powerfully. Their teaching styles varied greatly, but I recognize now that their great influence on me resulted not from what or how they taught, but from who they were and the trust, freedom and insight they gave me.

Today, many decades later, I remain connected to them by powerful, invisible threads of respect, and know I owe each of them far more than I could ever repay.