Steve Sargent: In Memoriam

February 25, 2013

Unknown-2It was with a heavy heart I received the news from my friend, Scott Sargent, that his father had died. Memory and distance can trick the brain into freezing time altogether, and this can be particularly true when it comes to teachers and friends we leave behind after high school. I hadn’t seen Mr. Sargent since my graduation from Gilford High School decades ago, so in my head he’s still the same as he was then, flattop haircut and short-sleeved dress shirts, a different striped tie for every day of the week.

Mr. Sargent didn’t look like an English teacher, he looked like a math teacher or an engineer or like an actual military sergeant—the kind who would flip a quarter onto to your bunk and give you two weeks of latrine duty just because it didn’t bounce high enough off the blanket.

images-7If you didn’t know him—and I definitely didn’t that first day of 11th grade English—you’d expect him to be exacting and severe, the kind of guy who’d cut you no slack, no matter what.

It didn’t help that while the other English teachers at Gilford got to serve up The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies—books with enough intrigue or violence or adolescent angst to make any lesson slightly more manageable—Mr. Sargent had the trying task of teaching early American Lit. The curriculum consisted of Pilgrim journals, Puritan sermons (mainly of the fire and brimstone variety), Emerson essays, and, worst of all, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, a book that seemed just as torturous to a sixteen-year-old as calculus or SATs or a gym class first thing in the morning.images-6

And we didn’t even have a proper classroom—we were shoehorned into a tiny, windowless space in a corner of the library that probably had been storage at some point or an office where the librarian hid to catch up on reading the Life or Outdoor magazines that never seemed to remain on the racks. There were no desks, so we all just sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Mr. Sargent, who sat in one of the only available chairs, crossed his legs, balanced whichever thankless text we currently had to read, and began to teach.

And we all know what happened next, right? Even Mr. Sargent would have to agree that this is one of the oldest stories in the book, whether it was part of his early American Lit curriculum or not. I know I wasn’t the only one who ended up scrawling Emerson quotes on my notebook—the most popular was “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist”—or the only one who grudgingly admitted Thoreau had some pretty good points. (I was probably the only one who tacked a poem on my bedroom wall by the Puritan Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, but that’s a story for another time.) Emerson and Thoreau were rebel punks and Wigglesworth was possibly the original Goth—as for the deceptively meek Emily Dickinson? She was easily the trickiest of the bunch. images-8

I’m not sure how Mr. Sargent led us to a place where we could find value in what we read, where we could somehow connect words that were centuries old to our own world of Joe Strummer and John Hughes and the all-too enticing anti-Thoreau sentiment of “Greed is Good” from Wall Street. I think his gift had something to do with his sense of humor—this wry little smile he’d get once we wore ourselves out with complaints and finally happened upon the truth that he knew was there all along—but more to do with a deep and genuine kindness. His smile didn’t mean he was laughing at us—though we sure deserved that more often than not—it was just benevolent amusement that it took us so darn long to figure everything out.

And I wonder now if we were shoehorned into that tiny room by design rather than lack of space. It wasn’t much smaller than Thoreau’s cabin had been, and it certainly was spare. There was just us on the floor with our notebooks and pencils, and Mr. Sargent sitting in his chair, legs crossed, book on his lap.

I suppose you could say that in addition to having this frozen-in-time image of Mr. Sargent from my 11th grade English class so long ago, memory and distance also have allowed me to idealize his impact on me as a writer and teacher and an ever-evolving nonconformist, but I really don’t think so. With that vintage flattop and a different striped tie for every day of the week, he was probably the first real nonconformist I ever knew; Emerson and Thoreau would be proud. I’m proud too, that I could call him my teacher.



8 Responses to “Steve Sargent: In Memoriam”

  1. weefuse said


    I don’t have the words to thank you enough for this. In this case your memory has served you well and you have not missed a trick. He might have looked like somebody who should have worked in a lab at Raytheon or GE, but there was a quiet streak of independence and contrariness in him that was a mile wide. Still waters run deep…


  2. I will always remember him for The Crucible and Billy Budd. The latter I have to admit never finishing; Melville was impenetrable to me, but I could listen to Mr. Sargent illuminate him all day.

    The Crucible? Well, even I got that one. Did I read it twice through, or three times? And the classroom discussions and insight…

    It only occurs to me right now that Mr. Sargent himself was something of a paradox, one of the many words he seeded in me with books like The Crucible. He was the appearance of Puritan severity wrapped in a gentle spirit connected to the divine.

  3. Kirsti said

    Mr. Sargent’s class changed the entire course of my life. I had never been particularly interested in literature before I took his class, and he was the first teacher to really, truly read my writing. I went in that classroom always sure that something important was about to happen. You really captured him–and his class–so perfectly here, Kate.

    • Elyzabeth Marcussen said

      Katie, what a lovely tribute. Mr. Sargent was one of my mentoring teachers. We had him in one of the open concept classrooms and as such, he had certain expectations as to how our materials would be laid out on our desks. He was the original OCD. I think this was his gift, to serve as a steadying keel in a sea of chaos that comes from of wall-free learning, with Bendicks and Edwards passing barbs over Mrs. DiLorenzo’s head and Harry Proudfoot entering the “halls” in his Prince of Darkness garb. There was Steve Sargent, perfect posture, neatly kept appearance and always with that inside joke smile a constant.
      He brought me through my senior year of finding myself – as I sat on the windowsill across from his desk in the teachers’ cubicles, sorting out the drama of my teenage years, he listened, occasional imparted advice and encouraged me to talk to my parents. And so in my senior will, I acknowledged him for his windowsill psychology. He was the perfect high school teacher – gifted in how he imparted knowledge in not only academics but also in the art of compassion.

  4. Meredith said

    This is a sad day. The world and especially his family has really lost an important and wonderful man. He will be sorely missed.

  5. All these comments are so wonderful and true, adding even more layers to his life and family and work. But how did I miss out on windowsill psychology? I sure could have used some.

    And oh my gosh, Billy Budd. I’d somehow (for good reason probably) completely forgotten that book. BILLY BUDD. Criminy. But I’m pretty sure we only had to watch part of that awful movie. . . he was good at picking his battles too.

  6. weefuse said

    Thank you, everyone, for sharing your memories of my father. He was my teacher both in and out of school and I’m both happy and proud that your memories of him have served to burnished my own.

    On a lighter note, I can now reveal to you a secret I have kept since the 11th grade at my father’s request: you only need to read the introduction and last chapter of “Walden” to understand the whole book! 😉


  7. Dawn Smith said

    I wish I knew that THEN Scott… lol

    Kate….simply perfection.

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