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A True American Idol

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In a digression from the world of media-cultivated celebrities, I now write about a gentleman worthy of the attention and adulation lavished upon the seemingly bottomless pit of manufactured "heroes," "rock stars," "icons," and assorted nonentities. His name is Dan Leslie Bowden, he is a teacher, and few of you have ever heard of him unless you attended Ransom Everglades, a high school in Miami, Florida. If you are still reading this and have not clicked over to Blogger #2145's latest Sarah Palin ambuscade, you may suspect this blog falls within the parameters of The Most Fascinating Person I Have Known or A Teacher Who Changed My Life and you would be right on both counts.

I recently attended a celebration for Mr. Bowden--and, yes, he will forever be Mr. Bowden--that marked his 80th birthday and honored his 50-plus years of service at Ransom Everglades, where he continues to work and educate. In the school's gymnasium, administrators detailed the friendships they have forged with him; faculty members paid tribute to working alongside him; former students described the mixture of awe and dread with which they sat in his classes; and a variety of adjectives were used in noble attempts to describe someone who is instantly recognizable in manner and bearing yet quite elusive and mercurial in nature. A native of Georgia, Mr. Bowden's accent and booming, theatrical voice make themselves known blocks before he comes into view. He grips the hands and arms of friends and strangers alike, he jokes, cajoles, interrupts, provokes, digresses in thought and action. He, in short, marvelously is.

I took Mr. Bowden's courses in poetry and AP English and can testify to the awe and dread that wafted through his classrooms. He was not a lovable kind of instructor, he did not tolerate foolish students (or teachers), he was often quick to anger and could launch into a tirade about the school's permission slips that was as long and as eloquent as any Shakespearean soliloquy. He was challenging, confounding and incapable of eliciting an apathetic response. (My defining memory of him remains the time he grabbed a student's chair, shook it, and yelled, "I like to use my students as props!")

A character, then, the kind you imagine exists only in fiction made flesh and blood, communicating the excitement of learning, of knowledge, and the excitement of teaching. (And I still have slivers of "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in my head to prove it.) His annual reading of the Truman Capote short story "A Christmas Memory" has become something of an event at Ransom Everglades and at the Miami venues where he reads it, with people returning year after year to attend. A celebrity, then, in a small way (though Mr. Bowden would deny it, then half-heartedly acknowledge it, then deny it again), but one earned via genuine achievement and embraced with respect and admiration.

Sitting in the gymnasium and listening to the cascades of praise and remembrances, I tried to calculate exactly how many people Mr. Bowden had taught in his career at Ransom Everglades--not including those outside the confines of the classroom which were and are many. The number would probably total several thousand, which may not seem like much in a span of 50 years, especially at a time when people can become famous, even revered, in a matter of hours as the result of a video posted online. But the process of teaching, that slow, painstaking process of feeding minds, opening and encouraging viewpoints--how rare, how difficult it is and with results just as difficult to measure.

And in today's culture, where speed and the transitory nature of communication and occupations are not only valued but taken for granted, how many Dan Bowdens are there left? How many schools would allow such a person to make a similar mark on the young men and women there? And how many young men and women, in turn, are being inspired to wed themselves to that diligent path of education and enlightenment, whose rewards take years, decades to accrue? I have no idea but, at the very least, I can say that I am fortunate to have been one of the props in Mr. Bowden's class.