My 11th grade U.S. History class was called Cultures in Conflict. You had a choice—you could take A.P, Regular U.S., or Cultures. For me, there was no question. I knew with absolute certainty that the history I had been taught from textbooks was censored and tainted and exclusionary. This was my 16 year old mind at work. I wanted someone to tell me the real truth. I wanted someone to tell me how to repair the mess I saw around me. I wanted someone to tell me how to change the world.
For many of us who attended Emma Willard School any time between, well, 1966 and 2000, Mr. Betterly was exactly this person. On a campus of teenage girls, Mr. Betterly (who I imagine now was probably around 6’3”) seemed to positively tower over everyone else. His laugh was distinct, his voice at once quiet and commanding. His grey hair combed back close to his head was the only sign that he wasn’t positively ageless. His shirts boasted colors and patterns of the southwest—sleeves rolled over his biceps made us imagine that in another year (or maybe, a setting outside our first floor history classroom) a pack of unfiltered cigarettes would have peaked out from beneath the rolled sleeve. His cowboy boots clicked in the hallways. And his jewelry… we’d never seen men wear jewelry like this. Those rings—beautiful turquoise rocks in hammered silver ovals, thick silver bracelets inscribed with birds and symbols that suggested peace and activism and freedom and tranquility and all of the things we wanted in the world. Much of this jewelry, he made.
Mr. Betterly taught courses on religion—on and freedom and the way I wanted to live. He taught me how a classroom should work. But mostly, he taught me U.S. History. And our textbook, while our peers were preparing for the AP, was A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
My mind was blown. There was not enough time for me to fight for all of the justice I needed to fight for. There were not enough words for me to tell all of the stories that had been silenced. There were not enough hours for us to talk about the things we read in that book. Mr. Betterly was a teacher in the truest sense. Recently, I have become a teacher. And I strive to live my life and my classroom with the same peace and challenge and humour and inspiration he did.
Mr. Betterly passed away last week and I found my sadness heavy and overwhelming when I read the news today. I had just visited my high school this weekend, and walked its quiet Saturday halls. That was always my favorite classroom, I whispered to Kristen pointing to the corner first floor room where Mr. Betterly’s voice still echoes over the opening pages of A People’s History.
Mr. Betterly, I thank you—with my heart and my words and my mind. I will always remember you as inspiration.