Many of us in our joyous misspent youth, particularly in our teenage years, enjoyed the undisciplined fun of our juvenile hubris.
Hubris is an ancient Greek word that describes excessive exuberance, confidence, or pride, which can often bring about one’s downfall.
The art of teaching teenagers during the hubris years requires a middle path, somewhere between crushing the hubris and leaving it untethered. This middle path requires the difficult task of helping a student to channel hubris to promote individuality and personal growth, because this youthful burst of enthusiasm often can be the first sign of what a young person’s real interests really are.
Think of the people you know who discover that they hate their careers in midlife and go in an entirely different direction or, worse, don’t.
My experience is that many of these people were not educated to question and challenge their conclusions. Rather, they were educated to take good notes and vomit it all back on the final exam to be rewarded with a great grade, and then passively step into careers in which they were never really interested.
Whitney Haley, our drama teacher at the Cambridge School of Weston, was a master of the middle path. He marshaled his resources and directed us with surgical, gentle humor.
Whitney was an aging, portly diabetic, who had long ago retired from a career in the silent movies. He did everything with an intentional dramatic flair. He pronounced his name with one hand dancing in the air as Whit-Née (brief dramatic pause) Hay-Lée (and then wait for our response). He herded us with humor rather than a cattle prod. Everybody loved Whitney Haley!
In our high school play, I was cast in the role of John Hale, the strict Puritan minister, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Before opening night, we all applied our own make up, which was approved by Whitney before we went on stage.
I came to the conclusion, as I was putting on makeup for the first time ever, that John Hale was actually “tall, dark, and handsome.” I decided he had to be Movie Star Handsome.
Whitney walked by and noticed that I was becoming darker and darker. With his customary dramatic flare and his best stage whisper, he intoned: “Perhaps my memory has failed me. Isn’t this a play about a witch-hunt, which did not happen to take place on the beach.”
The dressing room broke into laughter but it was not at me, it was how Whitney delivered his edict. I had not been shamed. I had just been encouraged to take a second look in the mirror, and become educated as to my “hubris.”
Unquestionably, Whitney Haley‘s favorite student was Greg Fleeman, who could not stop himself from making people laugh. He literally could not help himself. He was constantly funny.
When Greg would bring his chaos to Whitney’s classroom and inadvertently shut down the class, Whitney, with his perfect timing, would stop the class, go into his pocket, and offer him a handful of change: “Greg-or-ee. Would you mind if I interrupted you briefly and trouble you to step out of the room, travel down the hall to the candy machine, and acquire a Milky Way candy bar for me, which I will gladly give you as a reward at the end of this class if you will allow me to continue to pursue my chosen profession?“
Whitney, with his perfect timing, would regain order to his classroom with humor and without injury or shame.
One Christmas vacation, Greg invited me back to visit his family in Miami. His father had been a developer of real estate on Miami Beach, which had made him very wealthy, but Greg, who I believe was his youngest son, had absolutely no interest in taking over his father’s business. Greg’s family had surrendered their son to the Cambridge School Of Weston to let him be who he was, despite their ambitions for him.
The first night I was invited to a somewhat formal evening meal. Mr. Fleeman sat at the head of the table. Greg never stopped talking, and his father never stopped laughing uncontrollably.
Greg went on to become a very original and eccentric rock musician. He also became the apple of his father‘s eye, the family business be damned. Greg was much too eccentric to be appreciated by the audience of his day, but he was invited regularly backstage by those more famous than he.
I saw him perform with his band, Greg Fleeman & the FleeWomen, at a small venue in Greenwich Village. He had a small but very loyal following. He was like a standup comedian with an amazing voice. He was always Mr. hubris. but with Whitney whispering in his ear.
Greg Fleeman was far too original to even be considered by schools that granted good grades to those who were able to take notes and recite back what the teachers had said rather than question everything, which is what CSW had taught us to do.
Many of the people who I went to school with describe their experience at the Cambridge School Of Weston as “life-saving.” So it was, not only for Greg Fleeman, but also Whitney Haley and me.
Whitney is long since gone and Greg Fleeman died last year, but he left a CD, “The Right Tool for the Job,” which I go back to again and again, just because it holds all of his irreverence, both in his lyrics and his orchestration. My favorite tracks are “My Ex Wife” and “Skin Tango.”
You can listen to it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/wjqnSOl41Ac.
He was original, and became himself because everybody else was taken.