05 October 2014

Confessions of a Whitehead Disciple

This is something I wrote several years ago for a salute to Mr. Dennis Whitehead, a former teacher and colleague of mine at The Covington Latin School, who just announced that he is retiring after 43 years of remarkable teaching!

     Covington Latin School alums are, like Latin School itself, a rare breed.  And no one, I repeat NO ONE, more completely manifests that rarity than Denny Whitehead.  For he, more completely than anyone else, embodies that rare combination of the rigors and the joys of learning, upon which the Latin School tradition is based.
     I write this as a former student (1973-1977), a former colleague (1982-1985), and a far-too-distant (and too-long-out-of-touch) friend.  What makes Denny Whitehead who he is, as I reflect upon him now, is his intensity, the feeling those around him get that he takes his job as an educator so personally (and feels it so viscerally) that one cannot ignore him.  Indeed one cannot evade that intensity.  Nor should one want to.
     I now realize that, for me, in 1973, Denny was Montgomery Clift in a VW, James Dean in the Dean’s Office.  Of course, as a short, pudgy, 11-year-old from Mt. Warshington (as Tim Fitzgerald would mockingly say), Montgomery Clift may as well have been Montgomery Ward, and Jimmy Dean made pork sausage.  Nevertheless the intensity that he always has shared with those seminal cinematic figures is undeniable and unavoidable.  For their intensity is not always comfortable, but, despite all the discomfort, Monty, James, and Denny never distance themselves from it.  And that passion pervades both his life and his classes while demanding something more of all of us.
     No one, after all, coasted through freshman bio; no one thought junior drama was a cakewalk; and certainly no one lightly chose his senior elective in modern European history.  Why?  It certainly wasn’t simply because he was a “hard grader.”  Let’s be honest: how many classes at CLS are easy?  What made Denny’s teaching different, was the feeling that it mattered personally to him that we appreciated the Linnaean system of biological classification, that we took seriously the comedy of Harold Pinter’s “brandy balls,” and that we grappled with the complexities of the origins of modern nation states.  Most often imperceptibly (but sometimes quite visibly), he made it clear that this stuff mattered, not simply because it would be on the next test but because knowledge mattered, learning mattered, intelligence mattered. 
     It has always been too easy (and perhaps even too human) to listen to and ignore sermons about the need to use the talents God has granted us, but the Gospel according to Denny demands our full attention.  And, perhaps more than any single alumnus or alumna in the history of Latin School (be they priests, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or teachers), Denny Whitehead has lived the life of the true prophet who takes the talents of all quite seriously and demands that everyone around him do the same.
     Now, lest it seem that I am canonizing St. Dennis of Covington, an idea that I’m sure Denny would object to even more than the Church hierarchy, I do not mean to overlook his keen, and subversive, wit, his iconoclasm, and his impressive use of the pop cultural allusion.  Remember: he was Dennis Miller before Dennis Miller.
     And, in that spirit, let me suggest that, in his honor, everyone netflix Hitchcock’s I Confess.  What could be more apropos?  Monty Clift as a priest.  Feel his intensity, embrace the discomfort, and ask something more of everyone, yourself included.

Denny, congratulations!  

Gil Gigliotti (Class of ’77)

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