One week ago, very early Sunday morning, Harvard University graduate student Jimmy Biblarz boarded a plane and flew from Boston to Los Angeles to attend a memorial service.
He knew he would have to fly back to Boston later that evening, which made for a grueling day, but Biblarz never had a second thought about making the trip.
The provocative, maddening, abrasive, endearing, passionate, controversial Hamilton High School teacher who tormented, challenged and ultimately inspired him, had died. So Biblarz and hundreds of other students who got the same treatment from history and philosophy teacher Alan Kaplan crowded into the un-air-conditioned school auditorium on a blistering afternoon to pay their respects.
“Each of us spends our time on this Earth trying to ensure we are remembered in death. Mr. Kaplan, you won,” Biblarz said in his eulogy. “You produced hundreds of activists, organizers, scholars, therapists, teachers and thinkers. Your effects are exponential.”
I never met Kaplan, 60, who became ill this summer and died Aug. 29. But from everything I’ve heard about him and his work in Hamilton’s humanities magnet, I wish I had a teacher like him when I was in school.
“People don’t show up 20 and 30 years later to pay tribute to teachers who helped them do better on standardized tests,” fellow Hamilton High teacher Barry Smolin said at the service, a tape of which was made available to me. “We are here because Alan Kaplan did what all great teachers do. He clarified, he inspired, he awakened, he worked in ways that are unquantifiable.”
As I watched the tributes, I was reminded that from Los Angeles to New York, we have endured years of bare-knuckle battles but reached no consensus on how to improve public schools. Public education is shamefully underfunded, some say, while others insist money is not the answer. You can find equally rabid supporters and critics of charter schools, and the new Common Core curriculum is either a breakthrough or a curse.
But wherever you stand on any of that, we can all go to school on how a teacher managed to touch so many lives in such profound ways, loyal to both his convictions and his students even as his stubborn independence drew critics and even landed him in trouble at times.
Some students were intimidated by Kaplan. Some administrators and fellow teachers found him irritating.
He flat-out refused to teach Advanced Placement history, arguing that the curriculum was a memorization drill that allowed for neither true teaching nor learning.
His text was a manifesto — Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” a fist to the face of robber barons and exploitative institutions.
And some black parents thought he was out of line with his provocations on race, so much so that they wanted something done about it.
And yet when Kaplan passed away, more than 500 students — from classes dating back to at least 1999 — dropped what they were doing. They came from near and far to pay tribute in the auditorium of the school where Kaplan implored them not to believe everything they thought they knew about one another, the world or themselves.
“I knew he was a force to be reckoned with,” said Camila Lacques-Zapien, whose older brother warned her there was no sliding and no hiding in Mr. Kaplan’s classroom. The guy was dead serious.
But even that didn’t prepare her. Kaplan confronted and cajoled. He knocked students off-balance, forcing them to find some truth to hold onto. He called on students randomly and put them on the spot, all the while holding forth, part preacher and part performer, on race, class, power and justice.
“It’s hard to articulate,” said Lacques-Zapien, a UCLA graduate, “but there was a sense of purpose and high stakes in his class because there was no B.S.… You better show up and be honest and be yourself or you might get called out. He will recognize you and you will be seen.”
Lacques-Zapien set up a tribute page on Facebook and it drew hundreds of mournful comments and fond reminiscences from former students, some of whom became teachers because of him.
He had been their confidant, their rabbi, their therapist. He taught critical thinking. He demanded conceptual clarity. You needed a seat belt in his class because he might jerk you from the American Revolution to President Obama to Vietnam and back again.
“You were and still are my hero.”
“I live my life according to, ‘What would Kaplan say.’”
“A man that intimidated me so much … also pushed me to be better than I expected.”
The comments were from students of all colors, which is worth noting because in 1999, administrators and the media investigated claims by some black parents that Kaplan was a racist. They said he degraded black students by asking why no one sympathized with the slave masters.
The L.A. Weekly assigned a young African American reporter to check out this menace to public education, and she found an entirely different man than the one described by critics.
“Alan was teaching in his own way, very in your face, challenging everybody — black and white,” says the reporter.
She understood the concerns among parents, because Kaplan was blunt about race. He would tell students, for instance, that statistically speaking, “All you black kids are going to do worse than white kids.”
But the reporter, who went by the name Erin Aubry at the time, reported the story deeply enough to understand what Kaplan, a Jewish kid from the San Fernando Valley, was doing.
He was challenging students of all colors to be honest and open about race and about history itself. He had been shocked into a permanent state of moral outrage by the inequalities he witnessed in his first job at a middle school in a poor neighborhood, Kaplan said, and he taught with urgency and conviction.
That reporter not only understood Kaplan, she married him, and Erin Aubry Kaplan was with her husband to the end. In an essay after his death, she wrote that while they knew love across the color line, “race was always present,” and getting along sometimes meant negotiating with history.
Back when he was a student in Mr. Kaplan’s class, Biblarz was negotiating with his own identity.
“I was a kid trapped in the closet in high school,” Biblarz said in his eulogy. He recalled that when California’s proposition to ban same-sex marriage was in the news, Kaplan talked about how he had nervously visited a gay bar, only to be welcomed and made comfortable.
“He told us that experience made him check his own homophobia and that the more seemingly uncomfortable situations we put ourselves in, of being the minority, the more empathy and understanding we would gain,” Biblarz said. “Nothing could have made me feel better or more loved.”
If there is one last lesson from Mr. Kaplan, for all of us, it’s that in the end, the type of school doesn’t matter, the curriculum is but a guide and students are hungry to learn.
It’s the teaching that makes the difference and there is no higher order of business than to recruit and nurture talented and passionate instructors, give them the freedom to challenge themselves and their students, and let creativity and imagination run wild.
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