Dr. Paul Freeman - Guilford Superintendent of Schools

I met English teacher Dennis Whalen my freshmen year at Notre Dame High School in West Haven, CT. Mr. Whalen changed the course of my life.

Mr. Whalen was a young, enthusiastic and smart teacher who spoke to students as though we were adults. And, because Notre Dame was a small school, I was able to take four classes with him, in English and journalism, during my four years in high school.

When I was in the 10th grade, Mr. Whalen introduced me to Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, and Ken Kesey. These were, of course, writers of adult genres. We weren’t reading their books in class, but Mr. Whalen would encourage me to go home and read their works. And I did. I would go home at night and read Heller’s Catch 22. I wouldn’t understand all that I had read until I talked about it with Mr. Whalen the next morning. After five minutes with him, the confusing plot lines would make sense and I would go home the next night, read more, and talk to him again the next morning. This became a ritual that we both came to expect and enjoy. I would appreciate our conversations because Mr. Whalen would talk to me as he would another adult. This was a defining time for me as I clearly remember crossing that proverbial bridge from childhood to adulthood and seeing my future begin to take shape.

It was during this time that my appreciation for literature and writing flourished. I became the editor of my high school newspaper and subsequently my college newspaper too. In college, I slowly shifted my focus from journalism to education. I credit Mr. Whelan and his influence with my decision to become an educator. My first job was an English Language Arts teacher.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this story. Dennis Whalen passed away before I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him or just how much he influenced my life.

And by the way, when I travel, there’s always a beat-up copy of Catch 22 that goes with me.