It’s graduation time and I had some news recently that moved me to take note of an end-of-year honor worth praising. Usually the cum laudes are tagged onto the diplomas of students but this one turns the tables on the academic hierarchy. It’s awarded by the students.
I first met Michael McCann in the fall of 1964 as a college classmate and later roommate for three years. I recall vividly that he was the most voracious reader I had ever come across. He ranked his summer jobs according to whether they allowed him down time to read while he worked. He read things like War and Peace or Kant because…well, he thought it fun. I only read such works if I was assigned them. It’s not too much to say that Mike taught me, as much as anyone at college did, the virtues of intellectual engagement.
Although he went off to divinity school after graduation and I went off to study history, over the years he slid out of the pulpit and into the classroom, teaching history to students at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. He continues to do so today. Along the way we’ve kept up a running correspondence about our readings in history (often he gets to important books before I do), about what he’s teaching and what I ought to be including in my history survey text projects. He carried on at least a decade-long campaign—victorious in the end—to get our college text to mention the Barbary Pirates, a favorite subject of his. When I was working on A Little History of the United States, he put in his two cents about approach and tone, and helped shape the book.
And when it came out, he gleefully persuaded the head of school to let him use it in his American history courses. He continues to give feedback—and promises more, on how it can be best used in the classroom.
From our correspondence I could see well enough that his infectious enthusiasm was a tonic for students; but I was more recently delighted to learn that his pupils showed their own appreciation this year by dedicating the yearbook to him—surely the mark of summa cum laude for a teacher, awarded by those who must either wilt or thrive under the direction of their tutors.
The yearbook dedication page, above, features him reading a copy of Little History in his classroom; Mike notes that the book has “many talents and uses” including discipline of unruly students (photo, lower left). In college he participated in theater productions (a role in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I believe, was his first). And he’s shown upper left in a more recent Lakeview Academy production of Legally Blonde, playing the Dean of Admissions at Harvard Law School. For that matter, it’s easy to imagine he could do a turn as Albus Dumbledore—indeed, given the magic he spins, he should straightaway apply for the position of Head at Hogwarts.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors