In the Fall of 1980, it would not have been farfetched to imagine that I am dressed in a blue oxford button-down shirt with the top button unbuttoned, green rep tie loosened a studied two inches, tan corduroy jacket, narrow cords, sockless microbe-rich top-siders, longish hair, seated at a black-topped laboratory table listening to Christine Breuker outline the terrifying curriculum of the upcoming year of AP Bio. I probably smirked behind my hair, thinking that this was going to be easy. I probably thought to myself, "I'm destined to go to Harvard Medical School. I've been studying medical textbooks since I was a kid. I'm going to blow this course away." Little did I know that of the three statements, only the second proved to be fact.
Ms. Breuker was - and is - a study in contrasts: soft voice, mild demeanor, even-keeled, but with a steely gaze that echoes the precise line of the bridge of her perfect nose, large perfectly perfect teeth, and perfectly sharp jawline. She didn't have to raise her voice, able to finely tune a spare choice of words that would have made Hemingway proud to effect a bludgeonly full body impact or a surgical, nearly painless slice to instantly rightsize one's inflated ego.
My school graded on a one to seven scale, seven being the highest. I specialized in fives. AP Bio was no exception.
I seem to remember that after the midterms, Mrs. Breuker asked to see me. "Art," she said, "I don't understand what's going on. I'm disappointed in your performance. You have such potential and are wasting it on this class." I probably smirked. "You may think you are a hot-shot in this school, but to the world who only sees your grades, you are second-rate at best. You are better than that."
It took months for it to sink in, but with less than a month to go before the AP exam, I met Fear. I meticulously re-outlined the entire course materials for the year, filling two spiral notebooks with single-spaced outlines and diagrams that represented the entire year's curriculum. On the morning of the exam, having stayed up most nights for several days, I declared myself finished and played tennis with the future Dr. Dan Katz.
The exam was not memorable. The sleep afterwards was.
Weeks later, when I received a five out of a possible five, I felt on top of the world I'm sure I gloated, smirked, and engaged in all the peacock behavior an 18-year-old guy could possibly muster.
With the AP score representing 90% of my year's grade, I received a seven.
Shortly before graduation, I ran into Mrs. Breuker on campus. "Art," she said. "You are really a disappointment. Just think what possibilities lie in that mind of yours if only you apply yourself."
For years I think I resented that ego-shrinking comment. It probably helped provide the fuel I needed through semesters at Yale when I was working full-time to survive and on the verge of failing academically.
I don't know if I have ever lived up to Mrs. Breuker's confidence in my ability to apply myself. But it has given me a deep respect and admiration for those who do apply themselves. I think of her every time I say to a young employee, "Just think of what is possible if only you apply yourself!" And I hear those words in my mind almost every day.
Thank you Mrs. Breuker for helping to instill in me the meaning of excellence. I'm lucky to have had my own Velvet Hammer.
Christine Breuker has taught for over three decades at my alma mater, Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. I wrote this in honor of her retirement.