2011
08.12

In Memory of Bob Sperry

I posted this on another blog which is going to be shut down soon, so I’m reposting it here.

From GIRightslawyer.com Blog (June 8, 2009):


On Sunday, my favorite high school teacher died, Bob Sperry. 

 I’m still pretty upset about it.  A few weeks ago, I was thinking about him and his classes and wanted to get in touch with him.  I did a Google search and checked to see if he was on Facebook but didn’t try looking anymore after that. I meant to ask my mother (who used to teach at the same school he did, and keeps in touch with all of my old teachers there) about him and if she knew where he was living and what he was up to now, but didn’t. 

Fast forward a few weeks and I got a facebook message from a high school classmate, saying that he was nearing the end of a struggle with cancer. And then about 24 hours later he was already gone. 

I feel such a loss and wish so bad I could talk to him again. His classes were nothing short of revolutionary. Remember this is Newcastle, Oklahoma. There were notable exceptions like Mr. Sperry,  but most of our teachers were just biding time.  (especially some of the teacher/coaches, who would spend science and history class time to read the newspaper or talk sports) 

And to say the least the academic emphasis of the school was often less than serious. If you were a sports star you were somebody. If you weren’t, then tough cookies. (to give you an example of this, I was actually kicked out of my English class for asking too many questions, because to quote my teacher, “we accidently enrolled you in this class, but it’s really mostly for the jocks” — I think she said something to about me being a smarta** too, but that’s another story) And let’s not even discuss the excessive school discipline and the selective enforcement of school rules against some people and not others. 

But Mr. Sperry was different. He took his job seriously. In fact, he saw high school as being about true college preparation and he endeavored to largely teach his high school classes like a college class. He lectured using a rough outline he would write on the chalk board (he expected us to copy this outline in our notebooks and to take notes), but of his outline went far, far afield from the normal text. 

I had Mr. Sperry for two years of high school. The first year was for American History (I think it was American history from the Civil war onward — his take on the Civil war was extremely compelling, I especially remember the discussion of the demographics of the antebellum American South).

The second year was honors history, one semester was the American West, the other semester was the 1960’s.  

The American West class was nothing short of amazing. He loved the West and brought his love to the subject to the class, but he didn’t sugarcoat anything. We learned about the cowboys, but not just the hollywood version, but rather what it was really like to be a cowboy on the great cattle drives. And we learned American History from the Indian perspective. He assigned us chapters to read and review from  Dee Brown’s Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (but he got me so interested in the subject, that I read the whole book… this was especially meaningful as I had only learned a few years earlier of my own native heritage), and this flipped everything on its head. History looks very different from the standpoint of oppressed. — And of course there was the fieldtrip to the Mountain Man Roundevoux at Fort Washita. That was so cool (of course my memories of that day are probably tinged with the memories of spending time with my then girlfriend 😉 Mr. Sperry was cool in my eyes too, because when we  watched the Lonesome Dove mini-series in that class, he didn’t get on to me for holding hands with my girlfriend while watching… those were sweet times) 

The other semester was the 1960’s class.  Mr. Sperry didn’t gloss over anything but gave us a full and comprehensive view of the decade and its events. He started in the late 50’s. We learned about the Civil Rights movement. (and not just the hunky-dory everything is good now version either… for instance he told us how the forced busing ruling in Oklahoma City caused white flight and the doubling of the school enrollment of Newcastle in one year, I believe in either 1973 or 1974… and also how the KKK was active in that era in Newcastle) Then we moved forward to the Vietnam war, starting with the history of French and Japanese colonialism in Vietnam, the fact that Ho Chi Minh asked for US support in the fight against the French but we refused (so then of course, he turned to the USSR for help). We learned about the puppet governments in South Vietnam and how the US (even under “good” presidents like JFK) assasinated South Vietnamese leaders who wouldn’t do what we told them to do. And we learned about the Domino theory and how that the leadership of the US were blinded by the theory so bad that theylost sight of reality and kept sending in more and more troops. And we learned about the Tet offensive, of the hard fighting of the Vietcong and how that the war came home to American TV’s in a way that war had never done before.

We certainly learned too about the cultural changes: the Summer of Love and then the tragic Altamont Hells Angels riot and the assasination of RFK and MLK and the resulting riots. And then of course we learned about Nixon and Watergate, the boming of Cambodia, etc.

And bear in mind, this was in Newcastle, small-town America. Good ol’ boy values through and through. At this same time, it wasn’t unheard of to hear racist jokes at the barbershop or elsewhere. It was red, white and blue all the way, and authority was not to be questioned (unless it was the liberal judges in Washington who told us not to pray at football games) So to have a teacher like Mr. Sperry show us that you can’t trust the government was nothing short of revolutionary. (I still am amazed he wasn’t fired for his curriculum)

And Mr. Sperry also was willing to buck up against the powers that be in other ways too. I heard a story (before my time) that Mr. Sperry used to be the high school baseball coach, but quit being a coach because he wouldn’t play the son of someone of importance (not sure who it was). According to legend, Mr. Sperry wouldn’t play the kid because he hadn’t earned the spot, and Sperry wouldn’t back down. He would rather quit coaching than to play favorites.

Another example I do know personally. In the honors history class, Mr. Sperry got frustrated with our essays. He said they were poorly written and weren’t intelligible. He said he didn’t know how it was that a class of honors history couldn’t write, but he set out in a few days to remedy that problem. At the time I was frustrated with this, but he stood by his guns.  He insisted that we learn to write, and write well. (btw, he is not to blame for my fast and loose application of grammar and writing style on this blog 😉 He said we had to know how to write, not just for his class but for college too, and that if our English teachers hadn’t taught us how to write, then he would.

And Mr. Sperry was frank with us too. He told us that he bombed out of his first year of college (said he didn’t take it seriously) so he got drafted. He told us that Vietnam scared him straight and said he hoped we wouldn’t make the same kind of mistake.

Anyway there is a lot more I want to say. Mr. Sperry certainly didn’t insist that we hold to his views on things (in fact he was so fair-minded, that I still really don’t know where he stood politically). I left his classes the same as I started them, as a pro-war conservative Republican.

But I also left knowing the government had lied to the American people and likely will again, that wars fought on lies are a horrible thing, and that patriotic Americans have the right and duty to question their government.

Those ideas were potent seeds in my heart and mind. I left Newcastle and went to college for 3 years at SWOSU and then 3 more years to complete my bachelor’s degree at the Institute for Christian Studies. During those years, I asked lots of questions and took lots of outrageous stands for my beliefs, and got knocked around quite a bit. But Mr. Sperry’s seeds remained. I later was given other seeds — (most importantly, re-reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus with fresh eyes and realizing Jesus was assuredly both anti-war and anti-capitalist). I read others who illuminated my thinking and picked up where Mr. Sperry left off (especially Howard Zinn, Davis Joyce, Wendell Berry, and many others). And the journey is still continuing. I make tons of mistakes but I won’t give up. I want to know the history but I also want to apply that knowledge to make the world better. The decision to fight for justice took me to law school and is still with me in my career of using the law to fight for the rights of GI’s who want out of the military.

I still wish I could sit down with Mr. Sperry and ask him about the GI resistance movement in Vietnam (an issue dear to my heart). I wish so bad I still had a copy of my class notes from his classes. I wish I could ask him his thoughts on the current Mideast wars and what history would teach us of relevance to our day. 

But what a credit is to him, that I long to ask him these questions? Very few teachers do I yearn to talk to again, to pick their brains and to engage with them about the important issues of the day.

So much more to say, but for now I’ll just have to say that I will forever be grateful to Mr. Sperry. I hope future generations get the chance to be given the kind of real education us lucky few had in Newcastle, Oklahoma.