The best teacher I've ever known
Teacher Ross Friedman, playing the banjo and performing a dramatic Shakespearean reading in front of his class.
May 11th, 2012
06:35 AM ET

The best teacher I've ever known

Courtesy Linda StricklandBy Ashley Strickland, CNN

Editor’s note: In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week this week, we’re asking our colleagues at CNN to share their stories of teachers who have inspired them. Ashley Strickland is an associate producer at CNN.com.

In high school, I had the incomparable luck to learn from the Prince of Pertinence, the Sultan of Segue, the Allusion King, God of Softball and a Hell-of-a-Guy – altogether known as the Venerable Mr. Friedman.

From the first moment I set foot in his classroom that first day of sophomore year in high school, I knew it was something from a dream – not what most high schoolers imagine walking into second period English class.

The classroom was packed to the brim with allusions, from a handmade poster of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain” over the doorway to little bits of parchment taped to the walls, all bearing quotes from a certain Mr. Friedman.

They said things like “All you can do is all you can do” and “Thou shalt striveth to be a hell of a guy in all facets of thy life.”  The ceiling tiles were painted with scenes from Shakespearean plays and song lyrics from the 1960s.

The tall, impressive gentleman sat at his desk, excitement catching in his eyes as he read each student passing through the door like a new book. He carried a gentle smile but a purposeful posture, and sported a shirt and tie that wouldn’t dare wrinkle.

He began by saying, “In your life, you will probably have five memorable teachers who have impacted you in some way. I am one of those teachers.”

We all chuckled a bit at his self-assurance, but the way he said it told me that he wasn’t being arrogant – this was from experience.

And for two glorious years, I learned more than I could have ever imagined possible. The 50 minutes flew by impossibly fast each time. His methods, perfected after teaching high school English for 31 years, didn’t feel like methods at all.

Rather than chucking “Hamlet” or “Crime and Punishment” at us during those transformational years without a life raft, Mr. Friedman taught us to experience the books, live through their lessons and learn the deeper meanings and great metaphors lying underneath works like “Heart of Darkness.” We didn’t just learn anything in his classroom – we lived it.

We acted out the plays on the Friedman Family Stage at the front of the classroom, with homemade props and costumes. We turned in weekly journals full of the details of teenage life and analytical reactions to reading “King Lear.” Mr. Friedman never forced us to learn anything – he taught us the magic and joy in understanding things our way.

And to help us understand the importance of Henry V’s Agincourt speech, he put on a crown and cape, delivered the impassioned speech with believable drama, and at the climax, threw open the classroom door and charged down the hall waving a plastic sword, booming out “On this Saint Crispin’s Day!”

For the days when it was just too cheerful outside to analyze Edgar Allan Poe, Mr. Friedman would sit at his podium and read us a “lovely story” from Robert Fulghum, Bob Greene or Garrison Keillor. The few times he himself was absent, we would watch “Dead Poet’s Society” or “The Princess Bride.” When we were absent, we had to recite two stanzas of “The Raven” in front of the class. It wasn’t a punishment – rather, we knew we were missing out on a grand 50 minutes.

But don’t me wrong. Although we weren’t hunched over our desks in boredom or confusion, the work was hard and incredibly challenging. We took difficult exams and essay tests, wrote analytical research papers, memorized soliloquies and composed poetry in iambic pentameter. But like our allusion from “A League of Their Own,” “the hard is what makes it great.”

Instead of beating us over the head with the importance of learning the great literary allusions, he would write two on the board each day. They might be lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel, a famous quote from Sandy Koufax, a line from “Our Town” or Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Over the course of a school year, we were armed with great allusions from literature, song, film, sports, musicals, plays and even “Winnie the Pooh.”

While Mr. Friedman regarded it as his duty to arm us so well with this incredible knowledge, enough to rival an encyclopedia set, it helped even the most reluctant student come to life within his classroom – as Joseph Campbell once described.

For me, a writer since age 4 and a budding lit nerd, I felt like I was shooting up out of the ground and blossoming into what I wanted to become overnight. Mr. Friedman enriched us, and he nurtured what he saw as a gift in my writing. And he cared. He loved nothing more than to watch us unfurl with understanding and spark our minds with epiphanies and enlightenment.

Mr. Friedman himself was a man with a dream deferred – a fan, putting it lightly, of the Chicago Cubs, he wanted to be a sportscaster. At one point, the banjo player also wanted to be a musician. Last I heard, he was playing banjo with his wife in a band, with gigs aplenty. As a fiddler myself, I had the joy of playing alongside him once in the classroom – it was my favorite day.

I tip my hat to the man who never let his dreams go, but deferred them long enough to share his own gift for teaching with those lucky enough to be his Friedman scholars.

I still find myself looking for his red felt-tip-pen markings in the margins of my work, wondering what he thinks. And after going through college and still never finding a better professor, I know that I owe him any success I achieved after high school – including my work here. He opened my eyes to an entire stained glass window of wonders, but taught me to appreciate the intricate ideas contained within each pane. I have never forgotten any of the allusions, lessons or laughs that he taught us, and I find traces of them slipping into my writing every day. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

After finishing my senior year with his Advanced Placement English class, I received something that I cherish to this day: my certificate as a “Member of the Cultural Elite.” Mr. Friedman gave it to all of his scholars who completed the class, having studied all manner of things – from Shakespeare to following our bliss.

We were also granted the right to be addressed as a Duke or Duchess of Allusionary Lore, as deemed by the Allusion King himself.

I keep that certificate tucked with my high school diploma, and in all honesty, I was more proud to receive that than any diploma.

He signed it, as he has signed any of his correspondence with me, as “Ross Friedman: teacher, guide, mentor, friend.” We referred to him as “my liege.”

The world isn’t filled with mentors like this. It has to come from within the scintillating spirit of an individual so gifted and rare that his purpose never stops sparking a quest for greatness in others. In this case, I can truly say that it stemmed from the fact that Mr. Friedman was, and is, truly a hell of a guy.

But for the first time since I met Mr. Friedman, I have to say that he was wrong.

Mr. Friedman, you are the only memorable teacher that has impacted my life in every way.

And I’m still striving to be one hell of a girl.

Do you know an inspirational teacher? Schools of Thought wants to hear your story.  Email us at SchoolsofThought@cnn.com or send us an iReport!

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soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Shatul

    Fantastic article. One of the best teachers of all time. I use the quotes from the allusion board to this day and my allusion notebook still sits on my shelf. Proud to be a Friedman scholar.

    May 22, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  2. M. Feldman

    I had the pleasure of working with Ross Friedman for several years – he deserves all the accolades he's received.

    May 21, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  3. Really...

    If you like a teacher, enjoyed their class... chances are; You had a horrible teacher. A teacher is supposed to push students beyond what they are at the moment, to move them outside of their comfort zone to achieve more than they have before. Its not an enjoyable experience and if you've had it done to you, you probably hated it and the person that did it to you. A teacher is supposed to wield discipline to reign in behavior... They're supposed to set high standards of achievement that some will not reach at every step of the way. And some of you may be saying "Well my teachers weren't like that" and I'd say "no duh, thats why America is in decline". We have a class of educators today that are more worried about being liked, getting along, and just riding it out till retirement. I'm telling you... if you ever got an A in the class without crying a couple of times or punching something in frustration... you probably didn't learn much.

    May 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • what?????

      I'm sorry your experience in school sucked – but my daughter had the illustrious Ross Friedman for AP Lit, and considers him not only the best TEACHER she ever had – but the most inspiring PERSON she has ever known. His students performed better than most on the AP exam, went on to be successful college graduates, and ALL will remember him and his contributions to their lives forever. So there.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  4. Jody Campbell

    It is crazy how many times in my life since Mr. Friedman's class that I have an experience and the first reaction that comes to my mind is a quote from Shakespeare. It is even more telling that every time that happens, the voice in my head shouting the Bard's words belongs to Ross Friedman. Mr Friedman taught me how to read beyond the page, how to dream the words of the great authors of times gone by, and most importantly, how to be a hell-of-a-guy. Oh Captain!!!! My Captain!!!!!

    May 17, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  5. Ross Friedman

    First off, my thanks to Ashley for her lovely story and thoughtfulness. And second, it is a delight to read such kind entries from so many late-greats, all of whose words evoke memories and faces, caught most often in moments of joy and laughter. As my good friend–William Wordsworth–said:

    "I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought.
    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils."

    Thank you.

    Ross Friedman
    Teacher, Guide, Mentor, Friend

    May 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • shawn paul schinzler

      Dear Mr. Friedman, I too, yet 20 years have now past, am one of those enlightened students. Having been the passionate scholar, with a special mentor, whom of which followed my highschool and jr. highschool as my advanced english teacher, Mrs. Michelle Kittrell, Moses Lake High School, Moses Lake Wa. Upon my graduation, unbeknownst to me, I amongst 5 or 6 others out of a class of about 300 were honored with the "Wa. State Principal's Scholar Award for Academic Excellence". That award could have only come about because of such a dedicated treacher and having a long student-teacher relation, Mrs. Kittrell left those same fond memories for me, as did you leave with your students. I thank people like you for caring and sharing your hearts desire and giving your full enthusiasm for teaching. I only hope that my children are as fortunate as I was in the future as to enjoy such inspiring and caring teachers as I have. thank you sincerely Shawn Paul Schinzler

      May 16, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  6. nataliebradley

    Mr. Friedman is my favorite teacher of all time too!!! Thank you for writing this tribute to him! ; D I still reference my allusions notebook ALL the time! <3

    May 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Michelle

    So great to see a fitting tribute to Mr Friedman, TGMF. I have kept very few of my books/papers/assignments from high school, but I still have my little notebook with all 232 allusions! I still use these on a regular basis, even though I never took another English class after freshman year of college. For all the Friedman scholars out there, "The air bites shrewdly – it is very cold!"

    May 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • bhavmd

      "tis a nipping and an eager air!"

      May 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  8. bhavmd

    I don't know the number of times that I have told my college or grad school friends how much his class changed my life. He along with other amazing teachers such as Mrs. Serkadakis, Mrs. Hammock, Mrs. Spokes, Dr. Adams to name a few from high school have molded my young impressionable mind. There are times where I wish I could sit in their class once again, taking in their passion for their subject and becoming passionate towards it myself. How I miss those days when I was inspired under their tutelage and I walked into the world with a new perspective. I don't think I ever thanked every one of them enough for helping me become who I am today, and for having been so much for so many others. Truly, a young mind is a terrible thing to waste, and I after having left high school, I hope I have done them proud to have not wasted it. Thank you also, Ashley, for having done such a terrific job at describing how it was and is to be a Friedman scholar. I've attempted many times but you have done it best.

    May 16, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  9. Kristi Moore

    This article just transported me back in time. I cannot thank Mr. Friedman enough for his inspiration and motivation that has stayed with me since that glorious year of AP English. I still have my allusion notebook and it maintains as a prize possession. I cherish the memories of Mr. Friedman, that class and those references which have become a part of the fabric of my life. Thank you for writing this article. Thank you Mr. Friedman.

    May 16, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. Sarah H

    I had Mr Friedman for my senior year AP English and he was certainly an amazing teacher. I recently found my journals and my collection of poetry from his class and had a fantastic walk down memory lane. I could not have asked for a better teacher.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  11. Michael

    My wife and I are both Friedman scholars (and proud members of the cultural elite). I'm thrilled to see him honored in this way. And I don't think he would mind me adding that the ENTIRE English department at Milton High School in the 1990s was simply world class. I went from Jim Wade to Judy Hammack to Ross Friedman in three years. Life changing.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  12. Jennifer

    I was also a former student of Mr. Friedman and learned so much from his class! He made literature leap off of the page. It was magical! What a wonderful article and tribute! Thank you, Mr. Friedman!

    May 15, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  13. Carrie

    Also a Friedman scholar and I'm glad I'm not the only one who still has my allusion notebook! A fine teacher and a hello of a guy.

    May 15, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  14. Chelsea

    It was a joy to read your article, Ashley. As another former Friedman scholar, it brought back so many memories and had me laughing at my desk. The things I learned in Mr. Friedman's AP Lit class have stuck with me to this day-not only the litany of allusions (most still burned into my memory, although I too still have my allusion notebook) but also the necessity of engaging with literature in a deep and visceral way and that there could be safety and growth in self-expression through words. A memorable man indeed.

    May 15, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  15. Jacquie

    Ashley, you write so eloquently, I am so jealous. Sounds like Mr. Friedman was a captivating teacher. How lucky you, and the others were.

    May 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  16. mayfields

    So lucky to have been a Friedman scholar myself. I also became a HS English teacher due largely in part to my wonderful memories of Mr. Friedman's AP Lit class. I wanted to experience and provide the joy that was his classroom every day for my students (sadly, not all kids "show up"). I've got my allusion notebook safely stored away in my desk where it has survived every move and every attempt to clean house/simplify. I even re-used an assignment he had us do on writing our own version of Dante's Inferno. My students always enjoyed that project. Thank you, Mr. Friedman. You were truly one of the best.

    May 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  17. mayfields

    Lucky to be a Mr. Friedman scholar myself. I also became an English teacher largely in part to the joy that filled his classroom on a daily basis. We used to have allusion test study sessions that were more fun than you should ever have studying for school. My allusion notebook has made every move with me and has survived every attempt to clean out my house. One of my fondest memories of high school was working on a movie with my dearest friends for our final project in his class– he gave us so much freedom to learn and express our learning in ways that made sense to us. Mr Friedman, thank you.

    May 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  18. tessatrussell

    So eloquently written and so very true. I am so honored to have been able to sit in his classroom for a year. Thank you Mr. Friedman! Indeed you are a hell-of-a-guy.

    May 15, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  19. Katie

    As Casey's (see previous poster), thank you Mr. Friedman! You taught him much more than an appreciation of literature!

    May 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  20. cachetz7

    I am an English teacher because of him. My lesson plans are inspired by him. I will never forget the last allusion of the school year from Wicked's "For Good. "Who can say if I've been changed for the better? But because I knew you
    I have been changed for good."

    May 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  21. anonymous

    Good god I hated that man. He was the most conceited teacher I've ever had. Glad I became a public school teacher so I could impact children in a positive way. In his class, he taught students all the things necessary to know in order to excel in the field of literature, as though they were college students who had chosen that to be their life's path. In my class, I teach the kids what they need to know to pass the class, while imparting upon them skills and lessons that can help them succeed in any facet of life, as I know very well that they are too young to really have any idea (with few exceptions) what they will study in college, let alone do for the rest of their lives. Talking yourself up and DEMANDING respect from your students is a terrible and ineffective way to become a "good educator." One should demonstrate his skills and knowledge and EARN the respect that he thinks he deserves. This guy was a total fake and the day he retired continues to stand out as one of the best days I can remember. I wish he had taken a few cues from Judy Hammack or Jane Serkedakis and taught life skills, instead of AP test skills. Good Riddance.

    May 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Lorie Moore

      As a former Friedman student, I will say that I didn't give him enough credit at the time. I learned many things from his style of teaching that will forever impact my life. Thank you!!
      I cannot say the same of other high school English teachers (i.e. my waste of a year with Judy Hammack). Thank you, Mr Friedman, for your patience. I also thank you for you teaching us beyond the 9th grade level attempt of your fellow colleagues.

      May 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  22. Casey

    Mr. Friedman! I remember his AP Lit class quite fondly and you'd better believe I still use (and abuse) those allusions that I learned while under his wing!

    He really taught me how to enjoy Shakespeare. It was at his recommendation, in fact, that I took a class that studied Shakespeare in undergrad :)

    May 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  23. Sandra Kent

    Your insightful article shows the impact a great teacher can have on the lives of their students. An insightful teacher recognizes the gifts inside every student and waters them so they bloom. Students remember how you made them feel about themselves. Every student has promise to grow.

    May 14, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  24. Jim Vanstrom

    This is a great article, in this day and age of everyone being so quick to bash and trash anyone working in a public sector job I would hope some would take the time to read this article and consider the contribution to a better society that might possible come from public employees, especially teachers, I work in the private sector but I also try to cultivate an appreciation for those employed by my tax dollars, I wish others would also. Thank you teachers, keep up the oood work, you are appreciated.
    Jim Vanstrom

    May 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  25. Dee

    I love reading this article! Mr. Ott, my 7th Grade English Teacher was the best!

    May 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  26. Rose Penrose

    A wonderful article. I thank Lizzy for her wonderful comments and sharing this article with me. It warms my heart to know she is nearing the completion of her BA in history. Please note: I believe she is smart enough for the Ph.D. I too have a memorable teacher, Mrs. Fuller, my 5th grade teacher. The first day of class I was sure she was the meanest teacher ever. Now I know she had high expectations, and like Mr. Friedman, Mrs. Fuller made everything come alive for her students. By the end of the year, I enjoyed school and learned more from the projects she assigned. Thank you Mrs. Fuller, Lizzy, and Ashely for sharing.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  27. David

    Also a former Scholar of Mr. Friedman, TGMF. Every good teacher deserves recognition like this, but Mr. Friedman la creme de la creme. (I think that was Allusion# 216 my year, although it's been awhile since I looked at my allusion notebook. But I absolutely know where it is.)

    May 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  28. Barbara

    How fortunate you were to have such a teacher. I had Ms. Jean Perry a teacher of history, Centereach High School, Centereach N.Y. 1975-77.. I will never forget the first day of her class. She was teaching Anthropology. She started out on her belly wiggling (she was in her 50's) slowly she started to rise in different positions. When finished she asked us what we did. I dont remember anyone answering but she stated she had just demonstrated the history of mankind. It only got better from there.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  29. Laura

    As a former student of Mr. Friedman – I totally agree! Thank you for writing this, he truly deserved it.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  30. Anne

    I love this...For many years, I have wanted to teach (and quit corporate America) – I am one of the ones who cannot afford to teach...He was one of the ones that could.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  31. max ceballos

    What a wonderful story. I taught HS Chemistry for 20 years and would have loved a story like that about me. Great job
    by both of you.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |