Saying goodbye to a mentor

The world is filled with minor heroes. Neighborhood legends, and those just on the cusp of fame. Unlike textbook heroes, we know them personally, and can speak to them informally, they no less heroic for associating with the common man. The world has one fewer of those heroes now, with the death of Dr. Steven Porter last week.

I met Dr. Porter in the fall of 1996. He was a teacher and administrator at Binghamton High School. Over the next four years I would take one of his music courses every year. He was, in fact, the only administrator at the school who still taught courses, and he was fond of pointing this out. I’m grateful he did, for I’m sure I learned more about music and about life from him than I did from any other instructor before or since.

Dr. Porter grew up in New York City, studied to be a classical pianist, and began teaching at an early age. His interests were quite varied, ranging from domestic and international politics to food and travel, baseball, art, and musical theatre. He could discuss any of these subjects and more at great length, and would do so in class. Sometimes we’d spend an entire class period talking about nothing related to music, yet we’d all walk away having learned something important, and I never felt we wasted one moment of classtime.

I think the greatest lessons I received from Dr. Porter came when he didn’t like something I had written or composed. (I have heard similar stories from others.) Dr. Porter was unsympathetic to ’90s educational theories of self-esteem and political correctness. If something wasn’t good he would tell you; there were no ribbons or medals for participation.

When I was a senior I’d asked Dr. Porter to be my advisor on the “extended essay” I needed to graduate even though the subject was history and politics, not music. He did me a great favor by trashing my first draft in no uncertain terms. His suggestions produced a final draft was a great improvement on the first and I’ve remembered the episode ever since. Funny that my thesis–the harm done by public welfare programs–was the complete opposite of his own worldview. That’s the mark of a good teacher.

Dr. Porter was one of the few teachers I stayed in touch with after high school. I talked to him every so often over the past 14 years, asking his advice on political or professional matters, and his words were always wise. He’d ask me how I was doing, personally, as well, and he was genuinely pleased to hear things were good. I remember his saying once that one of his joys in “old age” (his words) was seeing his students grow up to be successful adults. Not just students, but people. He had no children of his own, just thousands of students through the years who considered him a teacher, friend, and confidant. I know he helped many students through some rough times.

Dr. Porter had a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others. He cared about people, and sought to alleviate suffering where he found it. He and his wife rescued and rehabilitated abandoned dogs, and raised and trained seeing-eye dogs for the blind. These were a few of his “hidden talents” he’d speak about it class, never in a heroic or braggadocious way, just in the manner unsung heroes operate.

Yesterday I took a glance at my bookshelf and saw no less than seven books written by Steven Porter, books about music, movies, politics. He wrote many more, all in the same conversational style he used in class. I guess that’s what I’ll remember most about him: the conversations. I didn’t realize until much later that somehow I ended up structuring my classes the same way. The beginning is just a conversation about some current event. Before you realize it you’re in the middle of the lesson: the learning sneaks up on you. There were no overhead slides, no youtube videos, no trickery. Just people. And a tradition of learning and scholarship going back thousands of years.

Those of you who knew Dr. Porter have your own stories to remember. I hope they are as fond as mine. Those of you who did not know him, I hope you have people in your life you can think of in such a way. Not quite famous, not quite so well-known outside of those who knew him personally, but a great man nonetheless.

With so much talent and ambition, one wonders whether a Steve Porter would be disappointed he never achieved the fame and notoriety of those just a notch more lucky. Some certainly might. I remember his saying once if he could describe his life he would label it “underachiever.”

Not so. Not so.

I guess I’ll take it

Am I happy Team USA has moved on to the next stage of the World Cup? Absolutely. Does yesterday’s result typify everything ridiculous about a soccer tournament? Again, yes.

Scenario one doesn’t pan out. Scenario two doesn’t pan out. Yet, somehow, on goal differential or some such thing, we’re still moving on. This is more ridiculous than “stoppage time.”

And by the way, now that we have this new metric for determining winners and losers, I’d like the New York Yankees to be named World Series champions of 1960, Bill Mazeroski be damned.

Nothing like weekday sporting events

I’ll admit it. I’ve jumped on the bandwagon. As I do for a few weeks every four years, I’ve begun to care about soccer.

Yes, I was heartbroken Sunday evening as much of America was. (And seriously, this “extra time” garbage has to go.) You can be sure I’ll be tuning in to hear Team USA’s noon match against Germany tomorrow, work be damned. It’s not exactly the first day of the NCAA Tournament, but one step at a time.

Just how Woodrow would’ve wanted it

Over the weekend I got to visit the President Woodrow Wilson House ( in Northwest D.C. Story goes that Wilson really is the only president to stay in Washington after his term in office, though he died only three years after doing so. Mrs. Wilson lived in the house until 1961, after which she bequeathed the house and its furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Somebody had obviously taken the good stuff, though. I looked through the pantry and all the boxes were fake.)

I’m sure Mrs. Wilson got a pretty good tax advantage for turning the house into a museum, though she probably wishes her heirs could sell the place today. It’s located on S Street along a swanky strip of mostly foreign embassies and other “non-profit” shelters. (Did I say shelter?)

When the Wilsons bought the place I’m pretty sure they didn’t know Washington real estate would be what it is today. Actually, no, they probably did. Many historians now look to Wilson as the first president to bring the kind of money and power to D.C. which later executives took for granted.

It’s sure not the swamp they built the place on.

Or maybe it still is.

Let’s make it official

As of 6:51 a.m. EDT tomorrow, summer officially begins. Basketball’s over, hockey’s over, and school’s out for, well, you know. From here on in it’s baseball and barbecues, and playing outside even after it’s dark. ‘Tis the season!

Better late

For eight years after graduating I waited for my alma mater to offer a doctoral program in public affairs. Well, several more years down the line it finally did, a little too late for yours truly. Here’s a snippet from the article announcing such in my recently received alumni magazine:

“We will prepare graduates to enter a community of scholars who can conduct rigorous research, advance knowledge and theories, and design theoretically sound and effective programs that engage issues of diversity, social justice and power.”

Yikes. Looks like I got out just in time!

Summer vacation

‘Round these parts, today is the first real day of summer vacation (weekends don’t count). Summer vacation doesn’t mean as much when you’re an adult, does it? Growing up with two parents who were schoolteachers I was 18 before I realized that 97% of people have to work all year round. Bummer.

I guess summer doesn’t really mean as much for kids today either, what with Facebook, Twitter, and endless summer camps, our youngest generation is the least disconnected of all. So much for vacation.

More birthday

I neglected to mention the other day that I did receive a birthday card from my House of Delegates member, David Ramadan. You know, just David saying hello. Uh huh. My representative, a “Republican,” from the oldest standing legislative body in the New World. This guy out Tom Libouses Tom Libous. Thanks, Dave. I hope you’ll forgive me if I do not reciprocate.