St. Ann's School, Brooklyn Heights
I still have them. Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides lined up on a bookcase in my living room. The black spines of the Penguin Classics versions creased from use. Well, except for Herodotus’ The Histories – I guess I never finished that one. The books have traveled all over the country since being assigned for my 11th grade Ancient Politics class at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. They’ve been to San Antonio, Baltimore, Chicago, back to Baltimore, back to New York, and now Massachusetts.
I took a look at them for the first time in a long while this evening after learning that my teacher, Jack McShane, died yesterday. Mr. McShane — I’d still never dare call him “Jack” — was the single most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had. On any level. I took his classes every chance I got which translated into three full years if memory serves. He taught American History and politics which were my two passions growing up.
But to merely say he “taught” them would be to limit what happened in those classrooms. He broke open the world of the past and the present and brought them to life with a quick, dry wit and a passionate enthusiasm for his subject matter. You never knew what you’d get when you walked into that classroom — he might lecture a bit or, more likely, draw you into the midst of a lively debate. He made you think, not regurgitate which is a rare quality indeed at any level of learning.
Walking into his classroom was like walking into a sacred space. Unlike other rooms were we’d go bounding in like trapped monkeys, you entered Mr. McShane’s room with respect and building anticipation. It didn’t hurt that his whole existence was shrouded in mystery. We didn’t know much about him except that he came in from Hoboken, New Jersey. Being arrogant, young New Yorkers we deemed it our God-given right to mock those from the Garden State. To paraphrase Nathanael’s question to Philip (John 1:46), ”Can anything good come out of Hoboken?” Evidently.
The other thing about his class was that everybody wanted to be there — or at least most of us. Mr. McShane was either someone you “got” or you didn’t. Those who couldn’t keep up with the repartee and humor often left the room bewildered. He was either your favorite teacher or a complete mystery. But I adored stepping into his class, as did my close friends, because we knew we’d laugh and learn and be challenged in creative and life-giving ways.
The most memorable classes began with Mr. McShane sitting with his feet up on a desk reading the New York Times. Once everyone had arrived he’d throw out the relevant topic of the day — whatever was happening in the news in the mid-1980′s — and away we’d go.
It was in part because of Mr. McShane that I majored in Political Science at Tufts and went on to a career working on and running political campaigns for 3 1/2 years. I even met my wife Bryna while serving as the Field Director on a 1993 Westchester County Executive race. I like to say that although our candidate lost, we won.
But this is only a portion of the influence Mr. McShane had upon me. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously said that you must read “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” While I rarely bring politics into the pulpit I always seek to bring theology and spirituality into the everyday and visa versa. Mr. McShane had the unique ability to integrate the classics with the modern world which is not dissimilar to my approach to ministry.
I stayed in touch with Mr. McShane for a number of years after I graduated in 1987. He even kept talking to me after I joined Army ROTC at Tufts — not exactly the usual St. Ann’s career path. But in time life moved on and I lost touch with him. I’d get reports every so often from my friend Chris Mellon, a St. Ann’s classmate who returned to teach at the school soon after graduating, like me, from Tufts. I hadn’t talked to Chris for many years until he called to share this news with me this afternoon and I look forward to renewing this relationship. Deaths like this often pull people together.
I can only trust that Mr. McShane knew the impact he had on me and countless others over the years. I wish I had told him in so many words before he died. But this is also a good reminder to do just that for the people who have touched you and shaped you and help make you into the person you have become. Family members, teachers, mentors, clergy, friends. We’re all who we are because certain people along the way cared passionately. Jack McShane was one of those people.
May the soul of John Shelley McShane, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.