Thursday, September 02, 2010

RIP Brian Welsh

Like many people who grew up in my hometown of West Windsor NJ, I was horrified that one of our West Windsor-Plainsboro High School teachers, Mr. Brian Welsh, committed suicide by train last weekend. Local newspaper reports can be found around the internet.

To say that Mr. Welsh was a great teacher is an understatement. He was a legend who made the Robin Williams character in “Dead Poets Society” look like a clock puncher.

When I was a student 20 years ago, Mr. Welsh taught a class on politics and law, called IPLE (Introduction to Political and Legal Experience). This is not a natural point of interest for teenage boys and girls. So the way in which Mr. Welsh sucked kids into his classes is something we could all learn from, even if few have the talent and passion to emulate the man.

The class was not required for anything, be it the district, the state, or any of the colleges to which students aspired. But it was a popular class, taken by everyone from the Ivy League aspirants to the kids on parole.

First, consider what he didn’t do. He didn’t sex his classes up. It was what it was, and there was no bait-and-switch or fancy dressing. He wasn’t a pushover; his classes appealed because they were involved, not breezy. He didn’t dumb it down. You had to work hard, write well, and get out and do all sorts of non-traditional activities. He didn’t hammer it in. There was no fear, or guilt, or condensation. The material was there to be learned by whoever was interested. Instead, Mr. Welsh motivated his students to learn.

I don’t know if I can really explain why he was such a great teacher. Certainly he knew his subject matter, and explained it passionately. His IPLE class requirements made it personal, though grading contracts, hands-on exercises and non-traditional requirements. I still remember a classmate of ours getting class credit for explaining his day in court where he beat a driving-with-suspended-license charge. Mr. Welsh used these features to connect what would normally be an austere, esoteric body of knowledge to our every day lives.

But most importantly, he gave the encouragement necessary to convince us kids that we could use this knowledge, and the applications of it, to make our way in the world. It isn’t that he showed us how to be lawyers or pundits; very few of us did (although those few have generally done quite well). The lesson was more fundamental than that. He inspired us how to combine our knowledge and our passions to set goals and achieve them. In that sense, the subject matter was irrelevant. Mr. Welsh taught us how to live.

Of course, the private lives of teachers are not necessarily obvious to their students, and I was certainly no less self-absorbed than your stereotypical teen-age knucklehead. I do remember the way that Mr. Welsh gushed about how amazing and heroic his wife was giving birth to their first child. But I couldn’t tell you what happened to him over the intervening 2 marriages and 20 years. All I can say is that of all the people I knew growing up, he was probably the last one I would expect to find on the tracks. That is what I find so heartbreaking.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. The last statement is the sentiment of all of us...

Kathy said...

Beautifully said. I had IPLE 20 years ago myself and that raspy voice, white man afro, and passion are ingrained in the deepest parts of me. I am a high school teacher now and have often mentioned Brian (he was the first person I had had as a teacher in school make me call him by his first name when I started teaching at WWPHS)to my students as so inspirational. Loved him, loved his class and nothing will ever change that--not even the way he left us. I'm heartbroken for his family, friends, athletes, students, former students, even for those who will never really know what they are missing. One thing gives me some small comfort: when someone touches your heart as Brian did to so many people, they are never really gone.

paul said...

I bumped into Mr.Welch in Washington DC, while I was attending a rally to try & bring attention to the STILL sick 9.11 first responders. (that was 3 years ago & their bill still hasn't been passed)

Mr.Welch was leading his annual trip of wwph students. The same one I went on 20 years ago. Anyway we had a nice catch-up talk & Mr.Welch was passionate in telling me how our GOV had failed us. I agree & can't imagine trying to teach todays kids about what is really going on within our Gov.

RIP Mr. Welch & thanks for caring for you're students.