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.