School–It’s a Family Thing for Me

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I’m feeling a bit staggered by the last month, having taken on far too many tasks, and family events have me thinking it’s time to tell a story that might also involve coming clean about the title of this blog.

You see, there was, and in fact is, My Father’s School; it actually started out as My Grandfather’s School. I even worked there many years ago before going off on a journey to the East that hasn’t yet finished.

Right around World War I my grandfather, who was teaching at the fine Nichols School (I’ll name names, and anyhow, it’s my alma mater) in Buffalo, New York, became engrossed by the question of why some of the obviously bright boys in his English and Latin classes seemed to struggle so with reading and spelling. They could do other things very well, so it wasn’t a matter of intelligence. What was it?

By the early 1920s my grandfather—he was Peter Gow, too, incidentally—had found an answer, and, bolstered by a very fruitful collaboration with one Dr. Samuel T. Orton in New York, he had worked out a scheme for teaching his students to overcome their “dyslexia”—the new-fangled word he had learned from Orton—and was running a summer tutoring camp on some country land he had purchased in the hills south of Buffalo.

In 1926, with six young kids and a wife who really preferred to live in the city, my grandfather decided to make the move to the country permanent and start a school of his own. Half dozen boys from all over the U.S. became the student body of what he perhaps immodestly called The Gow School. (There does seem to have been a bit of that going around a century or so back.)

The school grew and thrived (an alum just put together a nice video of the school’s history). In time my grandfather, who taught me to read at his tweedy, ash-strewn side, died, and first my uncle, then my father, became heads. My dad retired about 20 years ago, having overseen the transition to a nonprofit organization, some major fundraising and campus development, and a doubling of enrollment—not a bad showing for a great career!

When I taught at Gow in the 1970s it was a place bound by tradition, not unlike many schools in that era. There was mandatory evening study hall in a giant room—jackets and ties left on, you bet, and no talking on pain of having the evening run a bit longer (a sanction to be used only in extremis, I found one dreadful night). Teachers were “masters,” and my name became “Sir.” Part of the Orton-Gow method involved maintaining a very structured program, then and pretty much still considered important in educating kids with language-based learning difficulties. Dorm duty was a bear, but the kids were pretty interesting and cool—that’s where I really fell in love with, instead of just falling into, teaching.

I went my merry (actually “marry”) way after a couple of years, and I’ve had a pretty good run at a couple of other fairly straitlaced boys’ schools and my current very forward-thinking coed place.

“Not Your Father’s School” is of course, then, “Not MY Father’s School,” but it’s not really a place at all. It’s a construct, a kind of idealized place, maybe a test-bed for new ideas—but all the time I find myself thinking about my father’s and grandfather’s school. I’m blessed to have forebears who were pretty amazing educators in their day. There weren’t too many middle-aged, Ivy-educated Latin teachers 90 years ago who were obsessed with figuring out how to help adolescents learn to read well enough to go to and succeed in college; my grandfather was a pretty forward-thinking guy, as it turns out, even if his school had 150-minute evening study halls. And former students still drive across the country to catch some wisdom from my Aged P.

Maybe because of my heritage, I try to use this space to figure out not just how to do all the new stuff, but to do it in a way that holds onto and where appropriate honors the legacy of great work and great teaching that has come before us all—and which we forget, or ignore, at our peril when we get so obsessed with the new that we utterly dismiss the old.

So, I’m glad you’ve found Not Your Father’s School.

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2 Comments
  1. Peter,

    What a great story. Love your closing point about balancing the many forces in our professional (and personal) lives.

    Fred

  2. What a great story! You’re certainly right, your grandfather was definitely a forward thinking guy. I’m new to following this blog and look forward to reading more. =)

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