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Column

My senior year and the most important teacher

Alumni Day in Claremont is this coming Saturday. No doubt the parade will be bigger and better than ever. It always is.

Whenever I think about my four years at Stevens High School, I remember the first day of my senior year. The class was “College English,” the teacher the legendary Mr. Paquette. I sat in the middle row, front seat, whether by choice or assignment I don’t recall. We all knew that for this class and this teacher, you got there on time and sat up straight.

The short, balding, bantamweight teacher entered the classroom, wearing a dapper tweed sports jacket, rep tie, and charcoal gray slacks.

“Good morning,” he began, in his precise tone of voice. “This is College English. My name is Normand Paquette. During class your eyes will be on me at all times. If I walk across the front of the room, your eyes will follow me. Is that clear?”

He could have simply said, “I expect you to pay attention,” but somehow the way he put it was more effective. His message was clear beyond doubt: “We’re not kidding around here.” No one raised a hand seeking clarification.

The next nine months were a remarkable learning experience for this fortunate group of about 30 high school seniors. For Mr. Paquette, teaching wasn’t a job, or even just a calling. It was his passion.

I’m embarrassed to say that I appear to have taken my eyes off that man at least once and got caught in the act. The Class of ’57 Yearbook’s picture of Mr. Paquette shows me, right in front of him, looking down at my desk. I like to think that with that unfortunate exception, I followed his opening day orders.

Our class wasn’t just about the great writers and poets and playwrights. It was about the written word. Mr. Paquette taught us how to read and how to write. He made us diagram sentences. Nouns, verbs, objects, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation marks — all suddenly took on new meaning. In a sense, he taught us how to think.

And there were rules to be followed. To this day I hate split infinitives. It just isn’t right to completely overlook such things.

The educational standing of the United States has slipped terribly since I was a high school senior. We rank 17th, behind Finland, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, among others. Finland provides it students with the best public education in the world. In that country, teaching is considered a high-status profession, and teachers are well paid.

Mr. Paquette was French Canadian, not Finnish, and I’m sure he was paid far less than he was worth. But he never questioned the value of what he did. When he retired, more than 20 years after our graduation, he said, “I’ve never been sorry I came to Stevens. I’ve had a very fortunate life.”

As for me, I’ve been blessed with many good teachers, beginning as early as Miss Manley, my fifth grade teacher at the Way School, and extending beyond Stevens High to Brown University and Harvard Law School. But when I measure my teachers by their impact, it’s no contest. I don’t know whether Mr. Paquette was the best teacher I ever had, but he was the most important.

Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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