Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Memory of Mr. Farnham (my High School teacher)

Written by Ms. Berman

My high school Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Farnham, has died.  It has been over three decades since I have sat in his classroom, anger seething throughout my being.  When I have shared the stories of his unusual teaching practices with my own high school Science students, I am convinced that they think I am fabricating tales.  I couldn't create better stories if I tried. 

I learned very little Biology that year.  In fact, usually I dreaded going to the class.  The odor of his room filled with rodents, his eerie facial expressions, and a never-ending list of tasks on the chalkboard each day added to my rising frustration.  I was placed in the front row all year.  The students from the third row and back openly cheated their way through the course.  Yet, it wasn't until this moment, 36 years later, when I read of Mr. Farnham's passing that I realized what a powerful impact this man has made on my life.  Although his methods were atypical, one could truly say inane, he was teaching us daily life lessons.  At the time I thought that perhaps he viewed us as lab rats in the maze of life for the sake of his own amusement.  Now I realize that he was doing it for us.  His class was about survival.  More important, it was about questioning the "system." 

What are the purpose of tests and grades?  He made this clear the day he told us to take out a sheet of paper for a true/false exam.  "Okay, he said, "now start the exam."  "But you haven't given it to us," we replied. "Write your own questions.  Then number your answer sheet from 1-20 and answer them."  "What?" screamed a chorus of high-achieving students from Pacific Palisades.  Kids were freaking out.  But we obediently did what we were told because that is what students did in our generation.  After he collected our answer sheets, he proceeded to pull out the answer "key" and grade our papers. 

I understood at the time, but more acutely now, the ridiculousness of true/false exams, and of most exams, in general.  But we are a test-driven nation and so I comply.  There is a part of me that will always know when it is more important to stop teaching and rebel against the institution.  To take stock in the human spirit as being of greater importance than the standards, tests, and grades that are so heavily emphasized in the educational system today.  It may not be realistic to take that route this week, finals week, but the time will come when Mr. Farnham will pop into my head and I will remember the unique high school teacher from my sophomore year who valued life lessons as well as academics.  Thank you, Mr. Farnham.  You gave me a gift without my knowing it.  Trust that I am carrying on your legacy.


  1. KC Christensen-LangJanuary 26, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    Ahhhh, yes Ms. Tonia I remember Mr. Farnham and your reaction to him. Ironically, you talked about him all the time. Wonderful piece which brought back a flood of memories of our exciting and challenging days at Pali High.

    You may be carrying on HIS legacy and he would be proud. And I know full well after having known you for 38 years, what an amazing, inspiring legacy you are leaving for your own students!

  2. I think, the reality part about it is when anyone loses a loved one, they realize what they had only after they're gone. I know this personally, as well as things left behind. I often wonder what legacy I can leave behind. Well, anyway back to the blog, I feel as if I learn more valuable important things from someone when they don't try to make me do stuff that way rather when their open minded and give me options not demands in my own choices. I wish I could have met your teacher because I think I would have liked his teaching styles. However I can think of a few people in my life of whom I learn new things all the time from without them actually telling me things directly to my face. I think those people are necessary in everyones lives to help them through situations that they didn't realize they could get through. I hope I can or am someone in another persons life who they look up to or will look up to because those people that help us and teach us without trying to directly teach us are the real teachers. I also feel that you ms.Berman are someone who teaches us life lessons without trying to make us take notes on it. I've never had a teacher who asked me what's really on my mind and I thank you for it.