The Mind is its Own Place: In Conversation with Stephen Reed
An interview with Kate McCahill ’02
When I started at Northwood as a ninth grader, I was decidedly a nerd: small, sort of shy, dorky in my fleece and khakis. The friends I had were the ones I’d known in middle school, but they fit in that first year in a way I just couldn’t. While they had adventures on weekends, I stayed home and read. The only place I felt like I belonged, that first bumbling year, was in Mr. Reed’s English classroom, where I’d crack open the textbook, an assemblage of short stories and plays, and we’d pore over The Glass Menagerie, or “The Lottery,” or “The Most Dangerous Game.” With those pages in my hands, I fit. I was empowered to speak up and write fearlessly. Here, we could talk about these texts in a way I understood, a way that related to my own life—the loneliness of that first high school year, the uncertainty of an adult future, the tenuousness of friendship. And beneath every lesson ran an undercurrent of beauty and, closer to the surface, of humor, if not in the subject matter then in the discussions themselves. We could make ourselves vulnerable here in Mr. Reed’s classroom, and it was okay to laugh. Laughing was encouraged! And it’s Mr. Reed’s booming laugh I hear as I write this, a laugh you can hear from all the way down the hall. It’s a laugh that invites you to join in the conversation, to look for the funny, because there’s something in these pages, in his classroom, for everyone to love.
Mr. Stephen Reed has taught at Northwood for over 40 years. A longtime teacher of English, he has also served as Chair of the English Department, Assistant Headmaster, Director of College Guidance, and Director of Hockey Operations. Currently, he is Director of Alumni Relations. It was an honor and a pleasure to interview Mr. Reed this spring.
KM: What drew you to teaching in the first place – and what made you stick with it?
SR: The teachers in the small town in which I grew up were outstanding from grade one on. When I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Estabrook saw that I loved American history; she took back the text I had been using and supplied me with the eleventh-grade text and let me read and write about whatever interested me at my own pace -- my first independent study. Her interest was reinforcing in so many ways.
When I got to high school, another handful of teachers brought their subjects to life, and I joined the Future Teachers Club. I loved learning and the people who helped me learn and who cared enough to let me know when I was falling short or succeeding as a student or person. At Bowdoin, talking about literature in a room full of bright people was a joy.
I have tried to infuse discussions of The Great Gatsby, King Lear, Heart of Darkness, whatever, with similar enthusiasm and joy. But mostly, I have never forgotten the impact that taking interest in the way Mrs. Estabrook did can have on my students.
I began my career at a school for kids with special educational issues (most had been tossed from their previous for anti-social or criminal behavior). I learned that I could move some in a better direction by focusing on their strengths, letting them know there was something worthy in them. That was as affirming as job success gets.
KM: I’m sure lots of alums are curious about the ways Northwood has changed over the years. Can you tell a bit about the ways Northwood has changed over the years? Can you tell a bit about what the school was like when you began teaching – and the ways in which it’s different now.
SR: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Northwood has always had its share of both remarkably, committed talented students and those who for whom classroom success was not a top priority (that hasn’t stopped many from the latter group from having impressive success in life, by the way). We have always depended on first-rate athletic programs for paying the bills. Most substantial changes were made from economic necessity (the admission of women, reaching out to the Asian population, the recent addition of two high-level soccer programs) but had tremendous benefits beyond the tuition revenue. We are quite proud of the innovative programs we have developed recently (STEM research, independent studies, the LEAP week of travel and special interest programs which conclude the year), but even back in the early seventies we were progressive, accommodating groups of five or more students who lobbied for a particular class (the history of music, for example), and having twelfth graders end the year with an innovative Senior Program, three weeks of college-level lectures in the evenings, small group seminars the next morning, and a twenty page research paper or an equivalent project – a great preparation for college. The most obvious change visiting alumni would notice is the racial diversity of the student body, another positive development. If visitors stayed long enough, they’d notice that today’s students are less likely to challenge authority; the 70s were a more rebellious time, for sure. I will admit that many of my favorites then and now have been those who challenge.
KM: For some, studying English is a joy – it means you get to read books and talk about them! But for others English class is a source of confusion and dread. How do you engage your students with literature – especially those who struggle to connect with the subject matter?
SR: I suspect all English teachers’ success varies from student to student, often depending on the work being studied. Choosing works that have universal themes and say something profound about the human condition helps. At the high school level, not getting bogged down in terminology better saved for a college course (e.g. volta or the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor) is important. I believe in focusing upon theme and connecting the issues of the classics with current affairs. Enthusiasm and humor are crucial. To keep students engaged, it helps to reinforce even misguided responses with an acknowledgement of some worth in their answers.
KM: Tell us about teaching during COVID. What were the challenges and what were the silver linings? Did you ever think about leaving the profession?
SR: I am no master of things powered by electricity, from toasters on up. Handling classes with students in-person, synchronous and asynchronous was a Kafkaesque, organizational nightmare. About a third of the time, I forgot to record my classes. There was not even a bronze lining, let alone silver. Hence, I am now safely out of the classroom and in charge of alumni relations, a rather “harmless drudge,” as Dr. Johnson said of lexicographers.
KM: You’ve taught in the heart of the Adirondacks for decades. How does this setting inform your teaching and the content of your course offerings.
SR: I leave the glories of the Adirondack setting to the science and social studies departments and our splendid outing club. To quote Milton, “The mind is its own place.” One of the best things about literature is that it allows people to be in whatever setting and time they wish: Plato’s Greece, Shakespeare’s London, Achebe’s Africa. The fact that one doesn’t have to hike is a huge bonus. One of Oscar Wilde’s characters pointed out that nature is highly overrated.
KM: One of the wonderful things about teaching is that as educators, we are empowered to be learners, too. Tell us a bit about what you have gained or learned through your students.
SR: The one thing I can say for sure is that I had the opportunity to learn far more than I have applied. Were I a more apt pupil, I think that I would be more adventurous and brave. Northwood students are remarkably courageous and resilient (your own adventures chronicled in your book are but one example). I am humbled and pleased that so many of them have truly stretched themselves and achieved remarkable success. A part of me likes to think that the environment here has toughened them by offering real challenges, maximizing their competitiveness, teaching them the value of group effort and trust.
KM: In a 2017 interview with alum Shane McGrath, he asked you, “What common traits do memorable students at Northwood have?” You replied, “I am a fan of the tough, not needy (although everybody, including me, suffers from that flaw)”. As students, we don’t often think of our teachers as “needy” -- they are givers with experience, after all. I wonder if you might reflect on this idea of “neediness” as something universal, something relatable. What needs does an educator have? If I may, what needs do you as an educator have? And more broadly: as the years go by, does our sense as neediness ever leave us – and can it ultimately serve us?
SR: So much for heeding my request to make the questions softballs. I have found myself much more desirous of the approval of my students than of the adults I deal with. The reactions of adults are far more calculated and self-serving. Most teenagers’ attempts at guile are rare and fairly transparent; most often, students are genuine. I judge the value of the life I have chosen by their communication, implicit or explicit, of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with my teaching and mentorship. Because I utterly lack ambition and have little in the way of worldly achievements, I have accepted that whatever esteem students might feel for me and whatever worthiness I might have of that esteem must be sufficient. Moreover, the only real evidence of that worth is evident in their success. If that neediness was going to disappear, it probably would have by age seventy-five, I suspect.