A Really Great Gig

By Rich Shea — September 01, 2003 26 min read
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Brendan Halpin’s 10-year career in teaching has offered plenty of fodder for his new warts-and-all memoir. But he’s sticking with the job.

Brendan Halpin living in Boston makes perfect sense. For visitors, people who’ve never been to the city, have never tried to navigate its highways or its clusters of neighborhoods, where roads jog and twist and turn in on themselves, it’s like being trapped in an M.C. Escher drawing. The locals need maps, and even with one handy, they tend to give directions in cryptic terms— e.g., “I’m pretty sure it’s the, ah, second left, yeah, the second, after you’ve passed the grocery store with the funny sign out front. Then you head to the rotary, go to about three o’clock, and ... “

Halpin lives with his wife, Kirsten, and their 6-year-old daughter, Rowen, in the 3rd floor apartment of the house they own in Jamaica Plain, a cultural, ethnic, and economic mishmash of a neighborhood that borders the upper-middle-class suburb of Brookline, where he teaches English. As much as Halpin likes to paint himself as a “regular guy,” he isn’t. This past June, while finishing up his first year at Brookline High School, his 10th year of teaching, he was preparing for the August publication of his second memoir. The first, It Takes a Worried Man, about coping with the diagnosis and treatment of Kirsten’s stage IV breast cancer, landed him on the Rosie O’Donnell and Today shows in 2002 and garnered respectable reviews and sales in the United States and abroad. Writing about the experience from a spouse’s point of view was novel, of course, and Halpin’s warts-and-all approach is a lively mix of crankiness, hilarity, emotion, and brutal honesty.

The same can be said for the new Losing My Faculties, a memoir of the first nine years of his teaching career, spent in the Boston area in two public high schools, a failed truancy program, and a well-known inner-city charter school where, not long after Halpin’s appearances on TV, two-thirds of the faculty—including him— walked out. Indeed, the book is in no way typical: It doesn’t recount just one year of a teacher’s experience; it’s not an accentuate-the-positive, self-help manual penned by the (insert corporate label here) Teacher of the Year; and its author has decided that, despite the debacle at his last school, he’s sticking with teaching. Why? “The kids are the best part, the whole reason why I love to get up and go to work early in the morning,” he writes in the first memoir.

So I thought, I’ll get up early, too, I’ll drive my rental car from nearby Dedham (Boston hotels are way too expensive), then follow Halpin along the three-mile bike route from his house to Brookline, and spend the next couple of days observing him, in class and out, and asking the kinds of questions you’d assume a writer of memoirs would answer openly and honestly. But on that first day in early June, I got lost in Boston—for two hours. And after I finally arrived at the 160-year-old, 1,800-plus-student Brookline High (where the list of notable alumni includes Mike Wallace, Conan O’Brien, and Michael Dukakis), I stayed lost.

While Halpin was grading some of his students’ end-of-the-year essays, in the cluttered, book-strewn office he shares with three colleagues, I broached what turned out to be a touchy subject. I’d been thinking about the pseudonyms he uses in Faculties; for legal reasons, and to protect the identities of former students and colleagues, he comes up with names and titles like “the Buzzword Institute,” “the Dean of Yelling at Kids,” and “Famous Athlete Youth Programs.” “Better Than You” is what he calls the charter school that, over the course of three years, fulfilled his dream of becoming “the Great Urban Education Warrior,” then dashed it to pieces. Any Bostonian or charter school watcher will know exactly which school Halpin spends more than a third of the 240-page book writing about, so I wondered aloud if he was expecting a reaction from the administration he claims is responsible for driving him and 16 fellow teachers out the door.

“No, I can’t imagine why,” he said. Up to this point, Halpin had been friendly and accommodating. Now, he wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Well,” I suggested, “maybe they’d take issue with what you’ve written.”

“They can write their own book,” he responded. “I mean, I’m not interested in talking to them about it.” He hemmed and hawed a bit more, then added: “I mean, I wrote the book; that’s my contribution to the conversation. They can write their own book.”

I suddenly realized it was going to take me awhile to see just how complicated Halpin is, and how committed to teaching—so committed that he’s found effectively subversive ways to repress the shy and misanthropic sides of himself and put students first. His mother helped me figure this out later, more than a week after I’d left Boston and talked to her by phone. When I told her how guarded he’d been, she almost apologized, saying he’s that way with just about everyone. Maybe so, I said, but, in his memoirs, he’s so candid, and his accounts are so detailed.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “but he doesn’t have to look the reader in the eye.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Peg Halpin loves her son. She may not be happy with the way she’s portrayed in his first book (her Christmastime visit to Jamaica Plain, while Kirsten’s in the hospital, is rife with tension), but she’s still proud of her only child’s achievement. Remembering a book signing for Worried Man in Cincinnati, the city in which Halpin grew up and where she still lives, Peg said, “Oh, I was thrilled. I thought it was so great.” But she does have advice for the often critical 34-year-old writer: “My perspective is that kindness is a little more important than truth, in some cases.”

Teacher and author Brendan Halpin at the head of the class.
—Photograph by Sevans

Halpin is 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighs 150 pounds, and sports a buzzcut and a neatly trimmed goatee. Although he’s been a fan of punk music since high school, he wears sensible shoes, khakis, a tie, and a white button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled to three-quarter length. He almost always has bags under his eyes, and he’s the first to admit he can be “cranky.” During conversations with those who know him, the words “crabby” and “cynical” also popped up. Still, Halpin struck me—as he chatted with students in class, colleagues in the office—as more of the class-clown type, his quick wit laced with references to pop culture and literature. (In one class, he combined the two, as a sophomore prepared to read aloud Robert Frost’s “To E.T.,” a poem addressed to a deceased writer. “E.T., phone home,” Halpin croaked.) Here were glimpses of the “regular guy,” confirmed by Gaelen Harrington, another Brookline English teacher who’s known Halpin since 1992, when they were in ed school together. “Given what he’s achieved,” she said, “I should be intimidated by him, but he’s such a nice guy that I’m not.”

Based on his résumé, Halpin fits right in at Brookline, a classic overachieving public high school with students from 75 nations, average combined SAT scores of 1170, more than 70 sports teams, two newspapers, handfuls of National Merit scholars, and an exchange program with a Chinese school. The curriculum, at least in the English department, is not much more than a syllabus, allowing the teachers (20 in the department, 220 total) to do pretty much what they want. Says Robert Weintraub, BHS’s dapper, exceedingly tan headmaster: “We hire people who are creative, who are self-motivated, who are talented, who are skilled, and who want to work with each other and get better. Those are the things that we look for.”

And, for his part, Halpin—who, like his office mates, considers Brookline to be “a very functional environment"—is relieved. Losing My Faculties, which covers his pre-BHS days, is littered with accounts that veterans will consider painfully familiar, neophytes eye-opening. They’re the parts of the book where the crankiness creeps in, the under-the-breath muttering that (along with the liberal use of swear words) can be excessive at times but that is often tempered with humor or poignancy.

At age 24, for example, when Halpin was working his first job, he bumped into Olivia, an older English teacher who, aside from catapulting herself into the faculty parking lot at the ring of each final bell, forced her students to read dumbed-down versions of books and “sit silently and do a lot of worksheets.” John Andrews, a Brookline teacher who’s read Halpin’s book, admits, haltingly, “It’s honest, and I think he...sort of names problems.” This one, early in Faculties, for example: “Teaching is a really hard job to do well and a really easy job to do badly.” But as much as Halpin tends to wrap people (administrators, especially) in neat packages, he remembers that they’re human—even Olivia:

One day Janice [the school custodian] tells me the story of the Suicide. Last year at Newcastle High, a 14-year-old 9th grader blew his head off in the lunchroom. Many of my sophomores watched it happen. Janice tells me how [one teacher] stood there ineffectually passing out tissues all afternoon, how for a whole week afterward all the kids just drifted in and out, mostly talking to crisis counselors and rarely going to class, how the kid’s friends couldn’t decide between grief and anger, how they walked around saying, “Why did he want me to see that?” and how ... the minute the shot went off, while the rest of the lunchroom was paralyzed or screaming, Olivia, whose husband had died only a few months earlier, had run to the table and cradled the dying boy in her arms, saying softly, “It’s OK, honey, it’s OK, it’s going to be OK,” and stroking his bloody hair until he died.

The schism between the wide-eyed idealist and what many a veteran teacher becomes—in Halpin’s words, a “Bitter Old [insert F-word here]"—is a big theme in Losing My Faculties. Years after he’d graduated from Tufts University’s one-year Master of Arts in Teaching program, he longed to talk shop, pedagogy, and technique, with someone, anyone. Instead, he was stuck— first at Newcastle High, then at the suburban, closer-to-Boston “Northton High"—with 10-, 20-, and 30-year veterans who couldn’t care less about perfecting their craft. They preferred making snide comments about the town’s drunk mayor, the school’s delinquent minorities (racism is another big theme in the book), and the dictatorial administration.

It wasn’t until his third year teaching that Halpin could say to himself, ‘I feel like I’m getting good at it.’

So the students became Halpin’s saving grace. In the prologue to Faculties, a horrendous week outside the classroom is balanced by one good day inside. “I’m about to tell [Kirsten] how completely miserable my day was,” he writes, “and then I remember how much fun I had working with kids today.” Later in the book, during one of those kids-can-be-so-cruel moments, he discovers that what a sophomore had said about a fellow teacher—nicknamed Captain Jack (as in “Daniel’s”)—is true. “The Captain approaches me at about 10 a.m. because he is collecting money for the faculty end-of-the-year get- together, and he reeks of booze,” Halpin writes. “The smell is pouring off of him like it does from the guys passed out on park benches, but he is not passed out on a park bench, he is gainfully employed as a high school math teacher.” The lesson here, the one filed away for future reference? “Kids always know.”

Which is not to say all is milk and honey in the classroom. It wasn’t until his third year teaching that Halpin could say to himself, “I feel like I’m getting good at it,” a claim put to the test in 1999 while doing a short stint with a truancy program operated by Boston Public Schools and the so-called Famous Athlete outfit. The idea: Get the cutters, all of them middle schoolers, off the streets and into a classroom, where staffers can mainstream them back to school. Despite having good intentions, the folks running the program, as Halpin tells it, didn’t know what they were doing, which meant the teachers had to improvise. So Halpin taught math by having kids “invest” in the market, then follow their stocks daily; taught science by gauging how quickly milk spoiled in the building’s Inferno-like basement classrooms; and taught social studies via a mock legislature. And, always, he led writing workshops, something he’d started at Northton and will continue to do this coming year at Brookline.

As proud as Halpin is of his seat-of-the-pants innovations, he says the truancy-program situation “kinda sucked,” adding, “It would have been better for the kids if I’d had some curriculum to fall back on.” Here is another theme in Halpin’s life: the tug between providing students with structure and allowing them enough room to breathe. In Faculties, he writes: “Though I will get better at the discipline stuff, I am fundamentally a marshmallow, and I will trade a little bit of chaos for a little bit of student involvement. It’s pretty easy to run an orderly class, but if you want kids to really write and to really get involved, it gets messy.”

The best way to test Halpin’s theory, of course, is by observing him in action. It’s 9:25 a.m., and though the weather is cool and gray, the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Brookline High’s brick-and-concrete quad allow daylight to flood the fourth-story classroom. As Halpin sifts through the piles of folders on his desk, looking for today’s paperwork, the sophomores straggle in and spot the itinerary chalked on the blackboard:

1. Freewrite
2. Share
3. Get stuff back
4. Your poems— groups

After the 20 or so students are seated, Halpin delivers a 30-second warning, then says, “All right, start writing, please.” Silence ensues as the teacher and his charges scribble away in notebooks. This daily, two-minute exercise helps 15-year-old Basile Trede “get into” English by writing something personal. Alexandra Gorelova, also 15, says it’s not only great practice, it’s “relaxing.” And 16-year-old Arielle Cedar adds: “There’s all this stress we have, sophomore year. [The freewrite is] really nice because you can easily get out your anger.”

You can also test Halpin’s limits. After two other students have shared their predictable entries with the class, Caleb Hellegers, a big, bespectacled 16-year-old with a penchant for sci-fi novels and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, takes the floor.

Caleb: “Two things I’ll never forget. Look at the girl in the yellow dress. They raped her; those bastards raped her. And the—"

(Awkward laughter ripples through the classroom.)

Caleb: "—and the Serb chasing Croat old woman and children into a room and throwing a grenade in there.”

(The room erupts into pandemonium.)

Halpin: What are you talking about?
Caleb: Uh, I saw this movie last night called Harrison’s Flowers, and it’s still kind of—
Halpin: Why did we need to hear that? I guess, is the major question.

(The class continues to chuckle and chat.)

Halpin: OK, June is busting out all over.

Ten minutes later, after Halpin has shared his own entry—an appreciation of the punk-rock group the Clash—the class is split into groups of three, each one discussing a poem handpicked by a student studying one writer’s work for a recent essay assignment. If you close your eyes, the voices sound like pots boiling. Halpin, meanwhile, weaves between clusters of desks, sometimes stopping to joke or to stir the pot. Headmaster Weintraub, who often observes classes, says of Halpin: “He’s a really dynamic teacher. He likes kids, he’s smart, they like him.” Arielle, for one, says that because Halpin is able to step so easily into kids’ shoes, “we can learn and have fun at the same time.” He doesn’t spring quizzes on students to see if they’ve read a book, Caleb says; he assigns essays focused on “understanding the book.” And John Andrews, who has served as Halpin’s mentor during his first year at Brookline, adds: “He has a lot of energy in the classroom. He has good consistency. He puts the onus on the kids to see where the class is headed.”

Today, it’s moving into familiar territory. One poem, now open for general discussion, is “Five Elephants” by Rita Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate. Although short, it’s a difficult poem, in which the pachyderms, “walking towards me,” seem to symbolize a smorgasbord of items—umbrellas, bridges, “pebbles seeking refuge in the heart.” Of today’s handful of poems, this one prompts the most spirited discussion, with students talking about time and memory. Halpin listens patiently, encouraging everyone to share his or her views, then steers the discussion toward a subject he mentioned to me earlier, when he talked about splitting this year’s readings into, first, a “relationships” unit, then the “everything-goes-to-hell” unit—or “how people cope when things go bad.” He suggests to the sophomores that Dove’s poem might be about grief. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, when you’re having a hard time,” he adds. “You wake up, first thing in the morning, and you don’t remember? Like you just wake up, and then, all of a sudden, you have the weight of everything that’s happened to you—whoomph!”

One of the elephants in Halpin’s life is his father, Mark. There’s a picture of him on a living room wall in the Halpins’ cluttered Jamaica Plain home. He’s a handsome 35-year-old with a bushy mustache, a full head of hair, and a life-is-great grin. “He was so healthy,” Peg Halpin told me. “He was a vegetarian; he made his own granola.” But less than a year after the photo was taken, in June 1978, when Brendan was just 9 years old, Mark dropped dead. “Pulmonary edema of unknown origin,” was what the coroner told Peg, and a cause was never determined.

Halpin straddles the line between creativity and chaos. “If you want kids to really write and to really get involved, it gets messy.”
—Photograph by Sevans

In his first memoir, It Takes a Worried Man, Halpin writes that his mom, who was only 31, went a little bonkers after her husband’s death. Peg and Mark had always been free spirits, trying new experiences; they’d moved, with Brendan, from New Jersey to Maryland to Ohio to Illinois, finally settling in Cincinnati in 1976. Mark, who’d edited film footage for the Army during the Vietnam War, also taught college-level stagecraft and, in Cincinnati, served as resident set designer for a dinner theater. (His design for The Madwoman of Chaillot hangs not far from his photograph, and a collection of Rowen’s drawings, in the Halpin house.) Mark also ran a wood-stove shop with Peg, who’d operated a health food store in Illinois. Free spirits, yes; but they also made enough of a living to buy a car and a house and support Brendan comfortably. “Yeah, that idea—that you can just do what you want, and that you have unlimited potential—I definitely got that from them,” Halpin told me.

“But he didn’t leave me anything,” Peg said of Mark—no insurance, no money in the bank. She was forced to sell off the wood-stove business, then take a string of low-paying jobs as she and Brendan recovered from their loss. It wasn’t until 1985 that she found a steady, well-paying job, as a 911 police dispatcher. Before that, as Halpin put it, “we were poor.” But, he added, his mother never let it show. “She always convinced me there was no shortage of opportunities.”

With that in mind, she pushed Brendan to take the entrance exam for the Seven Hills School, a private high school for mostly wealthy Cincinnati kids that also offered academic scholarships. Halpin took the test, won a sizable amount of scholarship money, and found Seven Hills to be a nurturing place, where he got A’s and B’s without too much work and loved drama, especially playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (It’s an experience he carried into his career; he often has students act out scenes from works like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth to help them “own the language.”) Four years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Kirsten Shanks, followed, including junior year abroad—Kirsten in London, Brendan in Edinburgh. After graduating, they went to Taipei, Taiwan, where, as part of a summer exchange program through UPenn, they taught English. Work, until then, had always seemed a chore, something you have to do until you head to happy hour Fridays after 5. But, as Halpin writes of the Taipei experience in Faculties, “I get this glimpse of a world that few people are fortunate enough to know: the world in which work doesn’t suck.”

And, so, the career began—officially in 1993, after Halpin’s year in the Tufts program. Seven years later, after a shaky but exciting first year at Better Than You, Halpin was given the opportunity to confirm what he’d surmised: that he could make money at writing, too. He’d already mastered the essay in high school and college, he’d been creating fiction off and on since he was a kid, and, by scribbling alongside his students in writing workshops, he’d disciplined himself. So after Kirsten was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2000, sending Halpin into an emotional tailspin, she suggested a particular form of therapy. “I guess I knew that writing was a way for him to sort out what he was thinking,” she explained, “and so I thought he needed that kind of outlet.”

The floodgate open, Halpin held nothing back as Kirsten—who is tall, redheaded, and exceedingly pleasant—suffered through radical doses of chemotherapy and was confined to a hospital bed for weeks at a time. Toward the end of the ordeal, after Kirsten had almost fully recovered, a friend passed the writings along to a literary agent. Previously, Halpin had joked about having his book-length collection “rejected by five small publishers.” But the agent immediately recognized the spouse-of-cancer-victim niche and quickly set in motion a deal with Random House (whose Villard division is the publisher of both memoirs). The book was so unique, in fact, that it was sold to several foreign publishers, which, along with Halpin’s TV appearances, helped increase its earning potential. I was admiring the various book jackets for Worried Man, in the family’s book-lined computer room, when Halpin pointed out the window to a grassy vacant lot next door. “The book paid for that lot,” he said matter-of-factly.

But the Halpins are by no means rich (“respectable” book sales means thousands, not millions), and Kirsten’s story does not have a happy ending. Months before the book was published, on the day preceding the September 11 terrorist attacks, in fact, a checkup revealed that Kirsten’s stage IV cancer was back.

Here’s another Halpin theme, one that applies both to private life and career: Something bad will almost immediately follow something good, and vice versa. Halpin joined the faculty of what he aptly names “Better Than You” (as in, “we know how to educate kids better than you do”) in 1999, several years after it had been founded by two women intent on having teachers, not Boston Public School bureaucrats, run a school. The 220 mostly minority students, from disadvantaged neighborhoods, were bright kids looking for an alternative to typical public schools. And, indeed, Better Than You offered academic rigor, “town meetings” (student-run forums on local and national issues), and a focus on job preparation and citizenship. The faculty was also determined to have every student ace Massachusetts’ standardized tests and get into college. Even though Halpin noticed a few cracks on the surface—one founder was working from New York City, for example, and the student and faculty attrition rate was high—he recognized the opportunity to become, at last, the Great Urban Education Warrior.

‘Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I am the Mark McGwire of teachers, but I like to think I am at least a valuable everyday player with a pretty high batting average and solid defensive skills.’

Brendan Halpin

And he wasn’t alone. The nonunion faculty consisted mainly of young, idealistic people working long hours for little pay, collaborating on a useful curriculum, and sharing limited classroom space, which meant observing each other daily—"one of the greatest things to happen to me as a teacher,” Halpin writes. Even better was the “advisory,” the small group of students for whom a teacher would act as confidant and guidance counselor, helping to sort out personal problems, rifts between parties, and academic entanglements. For the first time, Halpin’s career and life, both of them city-centered, had merged. “Sometimes I see my students on the subway, or when I’m walking around my neighborhood in Boston, and it feels good,” he writes. “It gives me this kind of It’s a Wonderful Life, small-town buzz in the middle of the big city. There goes Mr. Halpin! He’s the schoolteacher!”

But the cracks Halpin had noticed soon became gaping holes. By 2000, with five years under its belt, Better Than You still couldn’t keep attrition rates down nor guarantee that the teacher-operated experiment would result in long-term success. That year, after the other founder announced her impending departure, the search was on for a “president,” who ended up being, in Halpin’s estimation, the kind of BPS bureaucrat the school wasn’t supposed to employ. And he brought company; according to Halpin, eight administrators were running a school with just 23 teachers in 2001-02, a year rife with conflict, recrimination, and strong-arm tactics in the board and faculty rooms.

Much to Halpin’s chagrin, the administration also dropped $25,000 on a professional development outfit he calls “the Buzzword Institute,” whose representative was obviously not a teacher. Getting advice from this guy was comparable, in Halpin’s thinking, to homerun-hitter Mark McGwire receiving batting tips from columnist George Will:

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I am the Mark McGwire of teachers, but I like to think I am at least a valuable everyday player with a pretty high batting average and solid defensive skills, not the kind of guy who makes the cover of Sports Illustrated very much, but the kind of guy who plays every day and is not a liability in the field or behind the plate. And this unctuous, car-salesmany guy is telling me how to do my job. I used to think the old people at Northton were cranky freaks for hating our department head there just because she had never been a high school English teacher (though at least, unlike this guy, she had been some kind of teacher), but now, after eight years, I get it. It sucks.

A highlight of Losing My Faculties—which its editor, Bruce Tracy, claims “is the great achievement of this book"—is Halpin’s demonstration of how young idealists turn into Bitter Old F---s. Halpin is not a BOF (his commitment to kids knocks him out of contention), but he’s no longer an idealist, either. Two coffin nails that helped seal his fate that third year at Better Than You were: 1) the suggestion—made by some administrators, teachers, and parents—that white people are not best-suited to teach mostly minority student bodies; and 2) a memo distributed by the president, asking faculty members whether they wished to apply for “comparable” positions the following year. Halpin checked “no,” and by the end of the year, he writes, 17 teachers and two administrators were leaving. The impending exodus made for local headlines, but, according to Halpin, the articles were spun by the president, known among the faculty as “Big Daddy.” The reporters, he claims, did not tell the story he’s telling now.

That story, he believes, is the story of most charter schools—what starts out as a great premise will, eventually, fall victim to too-few resources and a bottom-line agenda. He won’t even entertain the notion of the “perfect school” when asked. “That taps into the province of somebody else’s problem, at this point,” he told me.

The students, Halpin says, are what get him up and to work in the morning.
—Photograph by Sevans

And rightly so. Halpin, who’s almost 35—the age his father was when he died—has a rewarding job at Brookline, one that helps support a family in which one member is suffering from a life-threatening illness. (Kirsten is doing relatively well, thanks to a combination of drugs and tolerable weekly doses of chemotherapy.) Halpin has a writing career, too, and building the perfect school demands far too much time and energy.

“Ultimately, what I decided was, those rewards [at Better Than You] came at too high a cost,” he said. “I mean, you know, they broke my heart, they really broke my heart. It’s like, I really bought into the idea that that was my place and I was part of something important.”

Of course, there are different kinds of rewards. In Faculties, Halpin recalls a former Northton student who sent him an e-mail after reading his first book, telling him how much she liked it and how proud she was to have had him for a teacher. “I am reminded once again that what I do is important,” he writes, “and I get a profound satisfaction from having been any kind of influence at all on somebody, and I think, well, yes, I hate the burnouts and moron administrators, and giving grades and having to not lose stuff, but this is a really great gig.”

Halpin’s influence was also evident during the last night of my visit. At 5:45 p.m., I hopped into my rental and followed Halpin’s car through the winding, labyrinthine streets leading from his house to the Dorchester section of Boston, where the Better Than You 2003 graduation ceremony was taking place. The art deco-looking auditorium was abuzz with about 400 people, most of them African American, some holding Tweety Bird and SpongeBob SquarePants balloons. I mention the “African American” detail because I saw 20, maybe 30, white people there, and most of them, Halpin pointed out, were teachers who used to work at the charter school. They wanted to see their former students receive diplomas; for Halpin, especially, the event was poignant—these soon-to-be graduates had started at Better Than You the same year he had.

In my presence, at least, Halpin was tight-lipped. He didn’t want anyone to know a reporter was shadowing him, and sitting on the dais, among the dignitaries and guest speakers, were the founder who’d left the school in 2000 (she was there to hand out an award) and Big Daddy. In many ways the ceremony was typical—the awards, the speeches, the 37 graduates, dressed in blue and white, walking down the aisle to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” But it soon became evident, in the hoots and hollers bellowing from the former teachers, that they had made a sizable emotional investment in the students.

Then, two hours after the ceremony had begun, the extraordinary happened. As the young people filed back up the aisle, each one a newly minted grad headed either to a two- or four-year college, the former teachers flooded the procession. They were met, immediately, with hugs and tears and comments like, “Thank you so much for all that you’ve done.” It was as if the teachers had never left. And there, in the middle of it all, looking dapper in his gray suit, was Halpin, who didn’t have to say a word about how he was feeling. For that fleeting moment, his eyes watery and shining, he wasn’t the complicated guy I’d had such a hard time trying to figure out. He was the teacher who, earlier that day, in upper-crust Brookline High, had said to me of his latest gig: “The wonderful thing about this job is just the connection you can make with the kids. And that’s not going to go away.”


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Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 7, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read