Full Reviews

The Mystery And Legacy Of Edwin Barlow
By Simon Barrett - Blogger News Network

I probably read more books than some people have hot meals. Most are well crafted, no author with an ounce of sense would send me a book that is not. Very occasionally though I get something that is truly outstanding. Teacher Of The Year is in that class. Even though the year is still young, I just know that this book is going to make my annual top 10 book list.

Who was Edwin Barlow? That’s a great question. To many people he is a complete unknown, to those that knew this enigmatic character he was either your mentor, or tyrant depending on your view. He was a teacher, and a teacher from the old school. I suffered through the English Grammar School system, and I am pretty certain my Latin and English teachers were related to Edwin Barlow.

Edwin Barlow was also the first person to be awarded the ‘Teacher Of The Year’ title.

I know author Lawrence Meyers through some Internet email interactions. He is one smart cookie. And Edwin Barlow was one of his high school teachers.

Lawrence has worked long and hard on this biography, Mister Barlow was a deeply private person, and a man that deserves to be recognized. He shunned attention, he lived a monastic life, he terrified his students, and he likely was the best teacher in living memory. He lived the life of a pauper with few posessions, yet in death it was revealed that his estate was more that $400,000, most of which went to help an educational foundation.

Lawrence has taken a novel approach to the format of this book. Part one The Mister Barlow I Knew is exactly that, it is Lawrence’s own high school memories and also their relationship afterwards. Some of the stories had me in stitches. Mister Barlow comes across as a tyrannical despot bent on terrorizing his pupils. He had a particularly interesting bedside manner, referring to students that displeased him, which was a frequent occurrence, as ‘vegetables’ or ‘clods’. My favorite quote though has to be:

Ms Jones only prostitutes wear purple, get out of my class

Somehow I doubt that these tactics could be used in schools these days.

Part two, The Mister Barlow You Knew are a collection of stories by other people who knew him, both as former students and also fellow colleagues and contemporaries. Once again he comes across as an enigma. Little is revealed about the private life of the man. He seemed to spend virtually 24 hours a day 7 days a week, skulking in his lair at Horace Greenly High School. On Sunday mornings for example he could be found at his desk doing the New York Times crossword.

Part three, The Mister Barlow Nobody Knew, pulls the veil aside. Lawrence through grit and determination followed every lead he could find, and eventually started to unearth the strange story of Edwin Barlow. A world War II veteran, wounded twice. A man with deep seated religious beliefs who for a time gave serious thought of becoming a member of the clergy. A plan dashed by his experiences in the war, Edwin Barlow could not in good conscience join the cloth with blood on his hands. Education became his chosen profession.

The final part of the book Understanding Mister Barlow… analyzes the enigma through his readings and writings. Much can be gleaned about a man by the books he read. Edwin Barlow had a real passion for Alice In Wonderland. In fact in a rare interview, when asked if he could be anyone in the world his reply was Lewis Carrol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a fabulous story, and the quality of writing is excellent.

You can get your copy here, Lawrence also has a companion web site.

Simon Barrett

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Review: “Teacher of the Year, the Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow, by Lawrence Meyers
By Madeline Rivlin - NewCastleNOW.org

“A dot as in America, a circle as in Russia.”  I remember Mr. Barlow repeating that exact phrase every time he plotted a point in my ninth grade algebra class. Perhaps it was some type of obscure commentary on the cold war. In any case, I was a mediocre algebra student and had trouble following most of the material so maybe that’s what I remember because that was all I really understood. I also remember the time he lambasted me in front of the entire class for eating French fries in the hall outside before class started. I think his point was that it was not ladylike to eat French fries with your fingers in a hallway. I was humiliated and also shocked because I always kept a low profile in algebra class on purpose to avoid being yelled at.

Of course, Edwin Barlow was notorious at Greeley for his lengthy tirades, his ferocity and his general eccentricity. Although he taught there for 36 years, and left his entire estate of some $475,000 to the Horace Greeley Education Fund, he was always an enigma. In “Teacher of the Year, the Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow,” Lawrence Meyers goes beyond the public persona to create a compelling portrait of this unusual man. The book has a lively format consisting of separate sections, one describing the teacher the author knew as a Greeley student in the 1980s, the second containing recollections from a number of Barlow’s other students and fellow teachers, and the final section based on Meyer’s extensive research, describing Barlow’s life before coming to Greeley.

The first two sections are especially entertaining to read for people with a connection to Greeley as they contain interesting anecdotes about the school and also show how Greeley has changed over the years. In the final section of the book Meyers tries to arrive at a deeper understanding of Barlow’s inner life and reflects on his own perception of the man Barlow as a mentor, albeit a flawed one. The book also contains the complete transcript of an interview Barlow gave to the Greeley Tribune in 1984 when he was in fact named teacher of the year.

Barlow’s struggle with alcoholism contributed to lonely life

As “Teacher of the Year” reveals, Barlow’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism caused him much suffering and contributed in large part to his isolated and almost monastic existence.  It is touching to read about his few friendships with students, most notably John Willard and Eddie Dearborn, given the essential loneliness of his life. Meyers also discovered that Barlow once hoped to be a Catholic priest, but apparently concluded that he could not because he had killed enemy soldiers during his service with the 17th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in World War II.

Barlow lived in a series of small rooms and barely furnished apartments, had virtually no possessions other than his car, and at the end of his life was so ill that he actually lived at Greeley. He deliberately cultivated an air of mystery, disclosing almost no personal information to his students and colleagues and even moving often so that no one would discover where he lived. He disdained meaningless commonplace formalities. One funny story concerns an open house night one year where the parents who visited Barlow’s classroom found a bottle of gin, a martini glass and a note: “I’m home having a martini.  Why don’t you do the same?”

While Barlow was admired by some students he was hated by others, and the book does not shy away from negative comments from those students, and fellow teachers, who were not his fans. For example, Elissa Grossman, a student who herself went on to get a Ph.D. and become a teacher, describes how she was reduced to tears by one of Barlow’s classic rages; “Vegetable girl” and “clod girl” were some of his more memorable insults. Her offense? She had not shown her work when solving a complex integral in her homework. Then in class, after the teacher informed his students that it was impossible to solve that integral without doing paperwork, she gave the correct answer again without doing any work. Years later, in a statement for her doctorate, she wrote:  “At the end of the year I thought: ‘He really taught me nothing. He’s the worst teacher I’ve ever had.’  Today I think: ‘He’s the worst teacher I’ve ever had. And, boy, did I learn more from him than from any other teacher.’”

That quotation seems particularly relevant because, ultimately, “Teacher of the Year” is not only a story about Barlow’s life and a fascinating bit of Greeley history, but also a meditation on what it means to be a teacher. Barlow was estranged from his family and apparently had no significant close relationships apart from a few scattered friendships with former students. As the book makes clear, teaching was life, literally, and despite his personal limitations there is no doubt about his absolute dedication to teaching. In his own words, in the Greeley Tribune interview when asked “What do you like most about teaching?” he replied: “That it exists. Miss Gertrude Stein, when asked about her childhood in California, replied, ‘There is no there there.’ I think that’s a very provocative statement that applies to why I teach. For me, teaching was there.” 

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Review: Teacher of the Year Lawrence Meyers
By Jesse Kornbluth - HeadButler.com

Well, here's a first --- five years into HeadButler.com, and I'm finally recommending a self-published book.

Does it need editing? Badly. If I cut 50 pages out of this 300 page paperback, you'd gain an hour and never miss a thing. But then I could say that about almost any book from the most distinguished “professional” publishers.

Does the writer take liberties? Many. Like leaping into the main character's head and telling us what he's thing. But then Lytton Strachey did this a century ago, and brilliantly, in the final paragraphs of Queen Victoria.

Does the book look cheesy? A little. But the cover is attractive and witty, and the binding's a lot better than some books I've recently received from “real” publishers.

And the writing? Sincere. To a fault. But that sincerity is the reason for the book. It's the strength of this project, and its glory --- this is a labor of love that was worth undertaking.

Consider: the best teacher you ever had. And, at the same time, he's the teacher you know least about. Where does he live? What does he do outside of school? And, most of all, why does he both terrify and inspire you --- why, decades after you graduate, can't you get him out of your head?

For 36 years, Edwin Barlow taught math --- calculus, mostly --- at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. He sat in the back on the classroom; students went to the board and worked out problems. When they faltered, he could be withering. When they were late....well, here's an account of the first class of a new school year:

Everyone spoke in quiet voices, warily eyeing their instructor, who sat motionless in the back of the room, reading Alice in Wonderland at his desk. A few boys whispered nicknames they thought suited Mister Barlow best. "Blackie" proved to be the most popular, and the name stuck for decades thereafter.

Tom watched with astonishment as the classroom clock's minute hand struck the exact moment the class was to begin, and Mister Barlow slammed and locked the classroom door -- preventing six or seven students from attending this first class. He glowered at us and announced, 'This class begins at nine A.M., not 9:05 or 9:03 or 9:01 --- it starts, with you or without you, at nine A.M.'. He waved away those staring incredulously and slack-jawed in the window of the locked door, as they realized they were to be hopelessly abandoned in the hall.

Then he said seriously, 'Some of you may inadvertently survive this year-long test of your puny intellectual capacities, a test for which you are poorly equipped and unlikely to wish repeated'. We were mesmerized. We were in absolute awe. We were scared shitless and listened to his every word from that moment forward."

Mister Barlow had everyone open their notebooks, and on the front cover asked them to transcribe this dictation: "The Boy Scouts have their motto, "be prepared". We will use the same motto. This always means that our notebooks will always have sufficient vacant paper for our uses in class, before we start class. We always, further, have our pencils sharpened, our pens full of ink, before the class starts. The reason this teacher objects to our preparing ourselves in any way for work after class starts is that the number of individuals who have the habit of so preparing themselves is always less than the number who are prepared, and therefore it is impolite for us to demand that a whole group wait for us."

The math class departed in haste at period's end. By the time Mister Barlow's first physics class began --- at exactly the appointed hour --- word had already spread not to be late to Blackie's class.

Edwin Barlow graduated from Holy Cross and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He died in 1990, leaving $478,000 to the Horace Greeley Education Fund. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Those are the key facts of his life --- indeed, they were, until Lawrence Meyers began this project, pretty much the only known facts about him.

Meyers took math from Barlow in the 1980s. He went on to write and produce dramas for network television. But the “mystery” of Edwin Barlow gnawed at him, so he began an epic investigation --- 500 interviews of former students and teaching colleagues. In Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow, he satisfies his curiosity and discovers what drove Barlow to demand the impossible from his students.

It's a curious thing. You won't find Barlow lovable, yet you may love him. And --- this goes without saying --- you will probably think more of him than he thought of himself.

Read it fast. Skip the digressions. And then ask yourself: Was Edwin Barlow a teacher who would have brought out the best in you? And --- the extra point question --- if he had been less damaged, would he have been so good a teacher?