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Mr. Blauvelt's Moment

A beloved Friends teacher has spent 41 years keeping the spotlight on students. This year, like it or not, the attention is on him.

June 08, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

She became to him what many students have become over the years: a friend. And friendship with Mr. Blauvelt is built on ritual. In Kessler-Zacharias' case, they have lunch the week before school starts at Jeannier's - he keeps the calendar and they trade the tab - drinks before the annual alumni party, and every two months, a movie at his house.

What amazes Kessler-Zacharias, 26, is that Mr. Blauvelt gets his students so excited about "the thing" (a piece of literature) that they forget about him. "The love of the thing, and he gets them to love the thing."

"One of the great things he does is bring in music. A song to complement a poem."

One of his regulars is Mick Jagger. Mr. Blauvelt always tells his students about an interview the Rolling Stones lead singer gave when the album Some Girls came out. "He was talking about "Beast of Burden," which is my favorite Stones song of all time," Mr. Blauvelt says. "He's like, `I just love singing that song, the [and here Mr. Blauvelt sings it] pretee pretee pretee pretee pretee pretee girl.' And I said [to the students], `He is talking like a poet there. He is interested in the sound and the feel of this. That's poetic language. It's the same thing as, "To be or not to be ... ' "

At 64, Mr. Blauvelt is comfortably in tune with kid culture.

Knowing what is hip is not the same as being hip, though.

If you leaf through old issues of Quaker, the Friends School yearbook, you will see Mr. Blauvelt looking much as he does today: tall, thin, lanky, in a suit, often iridescent, with a thin lapel, and a skinny black tie. The black glasses a la Woody Allen have been softened to match his aging hair. The Beatle boots have been traded in for Hush Puppies. But the suits he had made in the '60s and '70s and still wears are back in style, as are his skinny ties, bought three for a dollar eons ago at Tie City. "They don't make 'em like that anymore," he says.

He keeps 1970s furniture from his parents, too, in mint condition. Rarely does his 14-day meal plan change - lasagna on Monday, pork chops on Tuesday, and so on. So when a former college roommate drives him to the supermarket every six or eight weeks, he heads right to the frozen-food case for Stouffer's.

And every year, he teaches Charles Dickens' 19th-century novel Great Expectations. A few years ago, he fought an effort to remove it from the curriculum. When he rereads it every fall, as he has for 41 years, he always finds something new.

Former student David Frank remembers a "mix of anarchy and discipline" in Mr. Blauvelt's class, and tries to re-create it for his own students at the Roxbury Latin School in Boston.

"There is definitely a slight craziness under a veneer of respectability," says Frank.

Twelve days ago, students dedicated the yearbook to him for the fourth time.

The first time was 1967.

He was so hip, former students say, that while they listened to Top 40, he was tuned in to James Brown on WEBB, a black radio station. "BLAU-vee," they called him, the cool dude who came to dinner at their homes, listened to their problems, and mediated with parents. More than a few girls had crushes on him.

Looking back, Mr. Blauvelt sees the Saturdays from October to May that he spent on the stage crew with students as a reason he never married. But he got used to his way of life. There was the fall play, Christmas concert, dramatic play, spring musical, one set of scenes after the next.

He wasn't going to make the sets for them - he is not someone who works with his hands - but he was their support system.

"We never got into that stuff of taking bows at the end of the show," he says. "I said that wasn't professional. But I was able to create a sense that this was important, that no show could go on without the crew.

"And the great thing was that nobody knew [who did all the work]."

There was no conscious plan by Mr. Blauvelt to set up his life to give as much time as possible to students, though he concedes, in retrospect, it looks that way. His love of literature and teaching was more bred in the bone than the result of any epiphany. He is the son of a Quaker schoolmaster. But Mr. Blauvelt did not imagine that after he graduated from Haverford College, earned a master of teaching at Harvard, and arrived in Baltimore in his iridescent suit, boots and sunglasses, that he would still be at Friends all these years later.

Nor did students, some of whom teased him. Amused, he would say: "You don't ask a brain surgeon, `Are you still doing brain surgery?' "

A New York filmmaker, Elizabeth Holder, class of 1988, came back, as many do, wanting to tell him how well they are doing. "It's just important to me to continue to have him in my life because he was so supportive of my thinking creatively," she says.

She can't imagine him outside the classroom. When Mr. Blauvelt told her, "You can call me Gary," she could only reply: "OK, Mr. Blauvelt."

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