Thoughts from Dr. Joe: A headmaster answers the call

I've kept a journal since 1961. And, since my children were born, I've been telling the story of their lives. Each day I run my fingers through the pages to see how far they've journeyed.

What tales will I pen that might be instrumental in their lives? In my life, I've found stories of extraordinary people can be significant.

Last week I spoke with Peter Bachmann, the headmaster of Flintridge Preparatory School, where I do some substitute teaching. He is more remarkable than any words of mine could make him.

I wrote about him in my girls' journals. I thought I'd share a little bit of him with you. I wanted to know the essence of a man who worships at the altar of a 45-cent book purchased in 1970 and whose reverence for life, ideas, books and conversation is sacrosanct.

With the precision of a surgeon he dissects man's perennial search attempting to answer the timeless question, ‘What makes life significant?' What does Mr. Bachmann see in the words of the dead poets that enable him to mentor his students toward the good life?

Although the classic writers have been gone for hundreds or thousands of years they live in him and he becomes the conduit as he gives his students the powers of reasoning and understanding.

Mr. Bachmann graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in American history. He received his master's degree, also in history, from the University of Virginia. He has taught at Prep since 1980 and has been the headmaster since 1991. In 1986 he inherited the Great Books course.

Bachmann's journey began when his father, “Bach” enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1930. There, Bach met Robert Hutchins who said, “We are here to learn how to think. Your teachers will be the authors of the great works of the West, they have taught previous generations and they will teach you for the rest of your life.” Hutchins mentored Bach, who passed on the love to his son.

Mr. Bachmann then molded a pedagogy professing that education should not only prepare one for a profession; it should also prepare one to exist responsibly within a democracy and within one's private life.

Mr. Bachmann and I spoke at length. He was excitable. Jumping from idea to idea, he grabbed his book, “Standing on Shoulders,” quoting from the text supporting his views that learning is a great conversation about the good life. I could only assume we're all searching for what constitutes such a life.

“You have to lean back to spring forward,” he said.

“What do you mean,? I inquired.

“Before athletes leap forward they lean back for momentum,” he replies. “Learning is similar; you lean back into the great ideas of the past and then jump into the future. That what Prep's all about.”

Hmm, I thought.

I still wondered what made him so wonderful. On page 14 of “Standing on Shoulders,” I found the answer: “I found my North Star,” he wrote.

It was an epiphany! In 1970 he saw both path and destination in one vision. The chicken scratch in the margins of his 45-cent book, “The Tempest” became his journey to Ithaca. The Constantine Cavafy reminds us that although the goal is Ithaca, it is the journey that sustains us. “I would absorb the wisdom of Shakespeare, seeking by the end of my life to become the text,” Bachmann penned.

The dead poets are alive when their thoughts lie within us. They give the world shape and meaning and answer the ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” That's Mr. Bachmann's North Star. That's our Ithaca; it's the journey's end!

The wisdom of the ages is acquired by giving that insight to another. In 1974 Bachmann wrote, “That fall I became a teacher!” His students now stand on his shoulders.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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