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Henry Coe shared powerful lessons in the classroom

Henry Coe shared powerful lessons in the classroom

You know those giant boxes of thank you notes at Costco or Sam’s Club? The ones that come in a package of 100, so you can thank everyone after a wedding or a baby shower?

Put a virtual box of those in your mind. You’ll need it to thank Henry Coe for everything he has done in making this world a better place for young people. 

Who went to Camp Jewell? That was just one experience Henry was integral in developing, but it was always the favorite.

Remember those awesome breakfasts with the cereal bins, and dinner followed by the Ort Report? (It was probably the unfinished milk that threw off your score … it always seemed to weigh the most. You were supposed to split a carton with the person next to you, remember?) Who can picture Centennial Lodge and Chapel Island, and the amazing games and lessons that took place there?

You didn’t even know you were learning. But you were: collaboration, higher order thinking, problem-solving – all those things that you embedded into your resume when you applied for your first job.

Anyone make s’mores outside of their cabin? Who went for two nights?

Let me guess: you stayed up late laughing and eating with your friends the first night, and spent your second evening with barely enough energy to stumble over the crushed Doritos on the floor. 

Use up any thank you notes so far?

Who learned to write not from a textbook, but from a teacher who used creative ideas to get you thinking? A teacher who maybe let you sit next to a fish tank, so you could watch the fish for a moment and let ideas come to you that were so genuine and meaningful that once they made way to your brain, you could not wait to get pencil to paper, and write, and write, and write … synapses firing.  

I bet you could use those writing skills to share a few more thank you’s with Mr. Coe. While you’re at it, write one for the time he spent getting more salt water for the tank each week. I bet you never thought about that. Maintaining a classroom that inspires students on a consistent basis is a lot of work, but Henry never stopped.

Summers can be unbearably hot in Connecticut. Perhaps you spent part of a heat wave or two under the trees at Camp Ingersoll in Portland, playing games with your friends, until the end of August signaled another school year. I guess that’s why there is an amphitheater named for Mr. Coe at that camp over the bridge, and where there are scholarships in Henry’s name. Some lucky individuals even got to work at Camp Ingersoll, learning as much as the campers did. I wonder what they are doing now? I know, one of them became a vice-president at General Electric, another a surgeon at Boston General, and one even invented a brand of pita chips.   

Here, I’ll help you begin. Dear Mr. Coe ... 

Who felt safe in their classroom during a scary time? If you were young in the early 1960s, you might have heard the news of Kennedy being shot shared by a trusted teacher who did not want you to go home to the assault of a news report on a black and white television. And by trusted teacher, I mean Henry Coe.

Walter Cronkite was “Uncle Walt,” but he did not know how to share disturbing world events with small children. Henry did. That day did not end the way our country wanted, but Mr. Coe sent children home with the advice to seek comfort with their parents and avoid the television and trauma of images that could overwhelm them.

(I think you are going to need more stamps.)

Who sat through a talk at church that was so moving and humanity-driven that it instilled in you a renewed sense of connection with your fellow man? Anyone who has experienced Henry’s talks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, that’s who. Count yourself lucky if you have experienced some powerful lessons on the civil rights movement. Wait … is Henry suggesting that we are supposed to be learning outside of the classroom? That’s crazy! 

Okay, who had a teacher who created new paradigms for learning that allowed you to understand otherwise boring topics through books? I wish I was introduced to the constitution with The Crucible and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. As Henry saw it, “history was the engine, and reading and writing were the cars.” Anyone who learned writing with Coe better be putting those writing skills to use.

Time for more thank you notes, don’t you think?  

Coe didn’t grow up surrounded by teachers. He was raised in a family of farmers, first experiencing the world in a home in which he could see land owned by his family in each direction. Insert metaphor here: planting seeds, growing, nurturing, etc. While those are viable connections, former co-worker and retired teacher Lorrie Martin, puts it best in comparing Henry to a spark plug. “He gets everyone all fired up.” 

Martin worked with Coe on many outdoor programs, and noted that Henry was always “game for something new,” and like “yeast” he “gets everyone going,” (in a good way, of course), thanks to his unparalleled leadership skills.  

There are others to thank as well. Let’s start with those who brought Henry to teaching. How about a note to Henry’s senior advisor in high school who encouraged him to think about what he loved to do. How about Marion Harvey, a principal from North Haven, who supported Henry as he worked toward becoming a teacher. While we’re at it, let’s thank Charlie Abell, district superintendent of Durham and Middlefield, who gave Henry his first job in the district, saying, “I think you have what it takes.”

Howard Kelly agreed, bringing Coe to Strong School, giving him “free rein” to teach in the manner he thought best. His advice: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”  

Henry and I spoke for almost three hours about his prolific career as a teacher, the books he read with students, the field trips he organized, and the amazing administrators with whom he worked, most notably Ann Richardson, whom Henry described as an “amazing principal.”

What was most poignant was Henry’s memory of a student who was killed in Vietnam, leading Coe to reflect on “what would happen if the most brilliant people were still with us?”

But Henry … many are.

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