Laurence McMillin, 1923 – 2005
News has reached me that Larry McMillin, who was my teacher, has died. Here are some of the specifics of his remarkable life, which I invite you to read and mark. I won’t be dealing with most of them here. Rather, I want to tell you of him as I knew him.
He was, first and foremost, an individual, and to understand why this is notable praise you have to know that his life’s masterwork was the creation of a class called Individual Humanities. This class, a one-year course spread out over the last half of the junior year and the first half the senior year, was nominally a literature course, but rather than merely teaching texts or an academic subject it aimed for something rather more rare (particularly at the high school level): It taught an idea.
The idea: That the most important thing a society could do was to create independently acting and thinking individuals who saw as their life’s work (or, as Larry described it, “their highest life crisis”) service to the community. “Service to the community” is a deceptively mundane description — in this context it means striving with all of one’s abilities, to the best of one’s abilities, to better the world, and the condition of mankind in it.
How do you teach this idea? You teach the individual. Larry did this by teaching archetypes of the individual: Oedipus Rex, for example, as the man who pursues truth even at cost to himself, or Huckleberry Finn, who develops into an individual when he decides to save Jim from a life of slavery, even at the potential cost of his own soul. He also taught the psychology of the individual, using Maslow and Ericson’s work; the philosophy of the individual, using thinkers from Mill to Bellow to Einstein; and provided examples of the power of the individual man (and woman) with real-life examples from the immense personal courage of Admiral James Stockdale to the unbounded creativity of artist James Hubbell.
As importantly, he required his students to consider the individual him- or herself, by assigning a “bio-study”: a 50-page paper that had the student pick one individual from history and show how that individual’s life had critical significance for his or her community. On top of that paper was another long paper discussing the bibliographical sources for the bio-study (there had to be at least eight), and then a third paper discussing how researching and writing the bio-study affected the student’s own life. This on top of numerous other 5- and 10-page papers over the course of the class. It’s no joke when I tell you I got through a year and a half of the University of Chicago — not exactly a lax school, academically — before I had written as much, or as strenuously, for all my classes as I’d written for that one class in high school.
(In case you’re wondering who my bio-study was, it was H.L. Mencken. Did the study of Mencken’s life affect me? As a hint, type “Mencken.com” into your browser and see where you go.)
Individual Humanities was an intensely rigorous course, and taught an idea that was both deeply classically conservative (the importance of the individual in society and history) and deeply classically liberal (the importance of society and the obligation the individual has to the community). You might think that a class that required the full reading of texts like Don Quixote, Hamlet and Man & Superman, compounded with daily supplemental readings and 200 pages of written work would hardly be the most popular class in school, and yet there were always far more people who wanted to be in the class than Larry would accept. Every year, Larry could handpick the students he wanted for the class (he did not always pick the “obvious” choices, either), and once he had the best minds he could find, he rode them hard, and wouldn’t tolerate less than full engagement in the work. If he thought you hadn’t done the work coming into class, he’d throw you out — he was known to throw out the entire class on more than one occasion. The result: Everyone was prepared the next day. You didn’t want to disappoint Larry.
All of which makes it sound as if Larry was a humorless taskmaster, which could not be further from the truth. He was strong-willed, no doubt. But he was also funny and free-thinking (in the best sense of the term) and he was perceptive of the personalities of the students who learned from him, as all the best teachers are, and was willing and able to let classes go on tangents before reeling them back in to make a point. He was also, in keeping with the Southern tradition from which he sprung, a courtly man, which meant that even at his most freewheeling, and even among intimates, he was attentive and reserved, and respectful of the others with whom he shared company. He was a good man, in all the ways one might wish to apply that phrase.
But best of all, he lived what he taught: He was an individual who saw as his life crisis the need to serve his community. He did it by teaching, and by teaching the ideals he saw as critical in fostering in others, for their sake and for the sake of the larger community. And he loved it; he loved teaching. You don’t spend 37 years of your life teaching, and much of that time developing and refining an incredibly work-intensive course, if you don’t love the process of cracking open the brains of your students to make them aware of the world and their place in it, and then actively engaging in the back-and-forth with your students that such a process requires. Larry loved it. And Larry knew, without false modesty, that he was doing good work. One time I said to Larry, who had no children of his own, that I wished that he had had children. And he looked at me with that smile of his (see the picture above). “But I do,” he said.
And he was right. I am right proud to say that I am one of Larry’s children. I carry with me not only my memories of him and of being in his classroom, but also that singular idea he strove in life to teach: That I, as my own person and in my own ways, owe society my best efforts. It’s a powerful idea and a hard one to live. Nevertheless I try to live this idea in my own life, and I will strive to teach my own child this idea as well.
I was fortunate to have Larry as a teacher; both during my tutelage and afterward, I was equally fortunate to call him my friend. It was my honor to dedicate my first book to him; although I regret to say the book itself was no masterpiece of literature, I wanted to note as early as possible the importance of those who taught me, and from whom I learned so much (Larry shared the dedication with Keith Johnson, another teacher and dear friend, who is also, alas, no longer with us). I suspect that in the future, when I write a book that’s good enough, he’ll receive another dedication, and I hope that he or some essence of him will be able to know it’s been done.
Those of you who knew Larry McMillin, and have learned from him, will know why I say to the rest of you that I wish you could have known him, and could have been taught by him. I do not doubt that your life would have been made richer, as mine has been. I do not doubt you would have a refined sense of yourself as an individual, as I believe I do. And I do not doubt you would feel the desire to engage and better the world, as I try to do, through my actions and my writing. Larry gave these to me, not as unearned gifts but in testament to work done with him. I am glad to have them.
Farewell Laurence McMillin, and as you once wished me, vaya con dios — go with God. I take my leave of you with thanks, with remembrance, with love and with the highest compliment I can think to give you: That you were and are a rare individual.