Andrew M.H. Alexander

On Richard Anderson and Chris Blackburn

Date: Fri, Mar 15, 2019, 5:06 PM

To: Chris Blackburn

From: Andrew Alexander

Re: Thanks for being such a wonderful teacher at Ithaca High

Dear Mr. Blackburn,

I’m sure you don’t remember me, because by this point you’ve probably had thousands of students (!), but I was in your ninth-grade Humanities class at Ithaca High in 2001-02. I know you were friends with Richard Anderson, the crusty older English teacher, and I don’t know whether you stayed in touch with him, or with other people from your four years in Ithaca, but he died last month, and it occurred to me that maybe you should know, if you didn’t already

In the last few weeks I’ve been reflecting even more than usual on your classes. As a ninth-grader I was in both your Humanities class, and Mr. Anderson’s spring semester Film Studies elective—the only freshman in a class full of juniors and seniors. In isolation, either class would have been intellectually transformative; in combination—well, insert your favorite superlative cliché.

The only problem was that both of you set me up for disappointment with all of my subsequent English classes! You two were the only English teachers I had at IHS who actually got it. I remember coming in to your class every day, having no idea what we’d be doing but knowing that it’d be fun and interesting. I remember in Mr. Anderson’s class doing nothing other than read texts and talk about them—none of the condescending bullshit so many of my other English classes had, where we’d fill out pointless worksheets or memorize out-of-context words for vocab quizzes. The night before I learned that Mr. Anderson had died, I had replayed in my head an anecdote from his class, one that I’ve thought of many times and which pretty much describes my own style as a math teacher: one of the kids joked, “Man, lesson planning must be so difficult for you! ‘Monday: discuss. Tuesday: discuss. Wednesday: …’” Mr. Anderson just glared at him.

Scrolling through the long list of remembrances on that obituary website, most from former students, many of whom I know, I’m not at all surprised to see everyone describing him as their best teacher. It’s been the default point-of-contact whenever I meet someone I don’t know who graduated from IHS plus-or-minus ten years from me—did they have Mr. Anderson? If they did, we always gush about how wonderful his class, and he, was.

I want to write in and say the same thing—except it wouldn’t really be true, because I’ve always thought of you as the best teacher I’ve ever had.

I still have every single piece of paper from your class, carefully organized in a folder—save one, which I must have misplaced right away, since I looked for it endlessly the rest of high school, to no success. As our final assignment for our unit on South Asia, you had us write a play—but you didn’t give us the assignment directly. Instead, you came into class, handed out a one-page play script to us, assigned characters to a few people, and started a table read. The play was set in a classroom suspiciously similar to ours, with a teacher character who you read, who (in the play) was assigning students to write a play about South Asia. The teacher character was interrupted several times by one student, the part of which you assigned to a student who frequently interrupted, and another student who made a class-clown remark (whose part you assigned to another student who frequently made such remarks). I’m not summarizing it remotely well enough; the point is, it was this brilliant and hilarious meta-textual moment in which you assigned us to write a play by having us read a play about a teacher assigning students to write a play, and captured exactly the student personalities in the class in your own play. As a 14-year-old, I loved it as a literary exercise. As I think back on it now, I realize it also demonstrated how well you knew us, how much you cared, how creative you were, and how much work you put in to our class.

I’ve been back in Ithaca for the last few years, and saw Mr. Anderson walking around town a few times, but never had the courage to say hi. Now it’s too late to thank him. But I still can thank you.

You and Mr. Anderson both focused so intensely on writing in our classes—that’s another strong memory of mine, about both of you, is how much you cared about good writing, and how much you wanted our writing to be good—and at the risk of self-promotion, if you want to read some of your former student’s recent literary adventures, I was very pleased with a letter I wrote from an expedition abroad a few months ago

I’m sorry that this is long (it could have been much, much longer), and I’m sorry for only reaching out to you on a sad occasion. Thanks for being such a wonderful teacher and inspiration, from 2001 all the way to today (and for having had the temerity to assign John Taylor Gatto to 14-year-olds!).


Andrew Alexander