Learning to learn, eighth grade in Vermont
It takes one, maybe two hands to count the teachers I’d rank as great, and Frank Vara was one of them. He was young, idealistic, loved what he was doing and challenged his students to follow him.
Frank was twenty eight in 1961 when he started teaching in Vermont. He had a red complexion probably indicating high blood pressure. That wouldn’t have been surprising: he was intense, Catholic, and openly gay. For Vermont in the early Sixties, definitely ahead of the curve.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. He had come north as a prototypical Kennedy idealist, speaking in the same Massachusetts drawl. That was before the assassinations changed everything.
He had moved from Massachusetts to Woodstock to teach seventh and eighth grade social studies. His class, right before lunch, was the unvarying highlight of my day. Mr. Vara could have taught any subject and been successful with his students; he was that good.
It mattered to me, however, that he was teaching social studies. I had grown up with the adults glued to a shortwave radio. The events in the United States, Europe, and especially the Middle East were discussed. What he was teaching – an awareness of the outside world – overlapped with what was familiar to me.
I appreciated Mr. Vara’s class and did well. One of his teaching methods was to encourage us to devour daily newspapers (one local, one national), and then quiz us at the end of the week on content. If you did well you were chosen to go with him and two other students to Burlington. There you’d be a contestant on a Sunday-night TV quiz show that was watched state-wide.
The show featured teams of eighth graders from Vermont towns teams battling each other on questions drawn from the previous week’s news put to them by a quiz master. In retrospect it was a pretty simple affair, with a center lectern and then two flanking church-dinner style tables
Our class wanted to win. We were proud to have been state champions the year before and wanted to continue the tradition.
Mr. Vara selected the two top students from our class to be the Woodstock contestants. I was third which meant I was an alternate. Of the two contestants, Marion was the better student; her grades were always close to perfect. The other, Tommy, had a photographic memory; once he saw something he held on to it.
But we did not win the state championship that year; the prize eventually went to South Burlington. We were disappointed, of course, but Mr. Vara never made us feel as if we had failed. And for us as well as some of our classmates, it meant several trips to Burlington and a lot of family and community excitement.
Frank was an obvious talent and didn’t remain long at the Woodstock grade school. He quickly moved to larger schools with more responsibility, and over the years worked as principal in several southern Vermont schools. His last job was as in a parochial school in the southern part of the state. Still with the same partner, he died in 2009.
I don’t think that Frank was responsible for me being a news junkie. What he taught was how to study well. That was what was most important to him, and to me too.