Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Love Story (or) The Greatest Teacher Who Ever Lived

Once again, I have been inspired by fellow bloggers. This has to say something about my own lack of creativity, right?! Regardless, because of Angela S. and Reya M., I've been thinking about my favorite teacher.

Actually, he can't even qualify as a favorite teacher. In my mind, he was a man among men. He was THE teacher.

My sister, Inga, was two years ahead of me in school, so for two years before starting high school, I made mental notes on her comments about teachers...who was tough, who was nice, who was going to throw erasers at your head. (Uh...yeah. Still didn't avoid it though.) One of the teachers she moaned about sometimes was Mr. Milliren. He was tough...brash.

By the time I'd suffered through my freshman year, it was time to choose electives for my upcoming sophomore year. Mr. Milliren taught only elective courses and you couldn't take any until you were a sophomore. The classes he taught were the most interesting to me. Psychology, Sociology, all of the ologys. And some classes on the Arts. Stuff that really flipped my trigger. So, I signed up for one of his classes with a little bit of fear in my heart.

The first day of class with Mr. Milliren my sophomore year, I was sitting near the back of the class as he read roll call. When he came to my name, he looked up over the top of his glasses and said, "Are you Inga's sister?" When I meekly replied that I was, his reply was, "Oh, boy."

Well, I wasn't quite off to the start I'd hoped for!

After roll call, Mr. Milliren stood behind his podium Dear Friends, pulpit...and proceeded to tell us a bit about himself. One of the things he informed us of was that he had served honorably in two wars. He had left the military as a decorated Major. He also informed us that we could call him Mr. Milliren or Major Milliren, but we'd better never think to call him Jim until after we'd managed to graduate. He also told us that he didn't expect many of us to do that.

I think by this time, I'd slunk down in my seat about as far as I could go. This guy was going to have a preconceived idea of who I was based on my DNA and on top of that, he didn't expect that I was going to graduate!

Major, as I decided to call him, then proceeded to pace in front of the class, talking about I don't remember what. I do remember clearly thinking to myself that this guy was totally full of crap. What he was saying was total hooey! Every once in awhile during his pacing, he would stop and look at us and ask, "Isn't that right?" or "Don't you agree?" Everyone would either nod or wouldn't move a muscle and let him continue. At one point, I'd had enough. How could I just sit there and let this blowhard blow?! So, the very next time he asked, "Isn't that right?!" I very slowly, with my heart racing in my chest, raised my hand and said, "I don't think that is right." Every single person in the classroom froze. The Major stopped dead still. He looked at me, raised his hand and pointed at me. Just as I thought I was going to pass out, he smiled and said, "I'm absolutely NOT right, and none of you little peons had the guts to say it until her!"

I think I may have let out a sound that was not unlike a hot air balloon letting gas out. After that, on my part, it was love.

Major Milliren was in his sixties. He was a solid 100 pounds overweight and was a doppelganger for an angry version of Santa Clause. He mostly wore Hawaiian shirts or shirts that looked like he'd mugged a tourist. The administration a couple of years before had made him stop wearing overalls and bandannas around his head. Damn them.

Major drove a classic old VW van that had a sticker on the back that said, "I (heart) my Labrador." I smiled every day when I pulled into the parking lot and saw that van.

Major's greatest impact as a teacher, in my opinion, was not what he taught from the books. Yes, I learned that too, but his greatest lessons were the ones he taught about being cautious of conforming and of being the voice of dissent when dissent was necessary. I think he was somewhat of a conspiracy theorist. He wanted his students to question authority if we truly felt it needed questioned. He wanted us to not follow our leaders blindly. He wanted us to question everything.

Yes, he was stern. He didn't relax the rules. He graded tough. He called a spade a spade and when you were being a little a-hole, he told you so. He was quite fond of telling those of us that had his class directly following lunch that he could smell the pot on us as we came into his classroom. I always thought that was a riot. But, Major had a heart of gold beating beneath those atrocious Hawaiian tourist shirts.

I think it was my Junior year when the Great Perm Incident occurred. My friend, Lisa, was going through beauty school and needed to practice giving a perm. Somehow, she got me to sign up for the gig. Lisa, the professional that she was, talked on the phone and smoked and got liquored up the entire time she was putting toxic waste on my head. When the cap came off, so did my hair. It was completely fried. My mom let me skip school the next day so that she could take me to a hairdresser to see if my hair could be salvaged. It had to be cut kind of Liza Minelli style, but shorter. Maybe more like Lyle Minelli. Anyway, I had practically no hair and what I did have was frizzy on the ends. I was horrified, humiliated and completely mortified to have to return to school.

My first class of the day was Major's. (By this time, I was taking every course he offered so I had him twice a day for both my Jr. & Sr. years.) Anyway, I filed into the classroom trying to keep a low profile. I'd done my makeup especially dramatic that day to try to avert attention away from my hair. (It was the 80's. Picture it. Lots of mascara.) The guy that occupied the chair next to mine was a tall beautiful football player. A guy so far out of my socioeconomic and social leagues, he might as well have been from another planet. So, of course, I took every word he said to heart. (Idiot me! Idiot!) Tall Dark and Handsome plops down in his chair and looks at me and says, in front of the entire class which had filed in by this time, "What happened? Did you get run over by a lawn mower?! (I said he was tall dark and handsome...not bright.)

What happened next will always be stamped on my brain. Major looked up then stood up from behind his pulpit. He walked around to the front of it, and right up to Tall Dark and Handsome's desk. He put his finger in the guys face and said, "Shut up! I think she looks very nice! Keep your mouth shut. Fool!"

And, that was the end of that. The tears I tried to hold back were not tears of humiliation or anger. They were tears of gratitude.

I have a multitude of stories about Major, and all of them are good. Some of them are about what he managed to teach this young, ignorant, scared girl. Some of them are about how he always came to my defense when he felt I was defenseless. He once bailed me out of getting into some major trouble for calling a student teacher an "asshole." The student teacher sent me to the office and as I was waiting for the principal to see me, Major walked in to the office and asked what I was doing there. When I told him the circumstances under which I had felt enough passion to actually swear at an adult human, he waited with me for the principal. When we got in front of him, Major told the principal that it was his opinion that no punishment was required because I had been punished enough by having to sit in class and listen to that "Asshole of a student teacher." I was let go with no punishment...just a cautionary look from the principal, and a wink from the Major. (The student teacher didn't spend another day in our school, either.)

Again, I have many stories. Most importantly though, is the impact this teacher had in my life. For a girl living in a not so functional household who lacked any self confidence, this man helped empower me. He gave me knowledge for sure. But, he also gave me confidence and self assurance.

Major retired the year I graduated. I like to think it was because after having me as a student he just knew it didn't get any better than that...but of course that's not true. He'd lived a long interesting life, had experienced love and loss, and he'd taught thousands of kids all he had to teach them.

Major's dream for his retirement was to travel. He'd been a lot of places in his life and he wanted to visit some of those again and go to some new places as well. And, so he did.

As I went off to college for my freshman year, thoughts of high school were far behind. Until a couple of months into the school year...maybe September...I ran into a friend from high school at a club off campus. He asked if I'd heard the news. No, I had not. What was it? And, through a dense horrible fog came the words, "Major is dead."

The funeral was the next day. I rushed to arrange a ride back home to attend. The funeral was held at the school auditorium. It was the only place in town large enough to hold all of the people they knew would come to pay respects to this great man. Of course, as I'm sitting here writing, the tears are welling up in my eyes, so I don't even need to explain to you how it was to sit there and mourn his loss.

At the grave site, because he had been a military officer, there was the traditional 21 gun salute. I remember with dreadful clarity listening to the sound of those rifles fire the last shots as the sky opened and poured down tears in droves.

I dreamed about The Major for many years. It was always the same dream. I was sitting on a porch in one of two swings which were facing each other. Suddenly, The Major would appear across from me. With great angst, I would desperately inquire of him if he was alright. I would frantically try to tell him everything he'd meant to me. He would say nothing and disappear.

I don't quite remember the circumstance under which I reached the point where I'd settled things in my mind enough (maybe the almost year of therapy I had in my 30's?!) to finally have The Dream.

In The Dream, it's the same as all of the other dreams with one exception. When I ask The Major if he's alright and I tell him how much he'd meant to me, he looks at me and smiles. At first, I continue to talk, trying to tell him everything before he disappears. Finally, I realize that he's sitting there calmly, just smiling. So, I sit back and relax and stop talking. We sit there and look at each other for a couple of minutes and then he stands to go. I don't want him to leave, but I see his face and he is happy and I understand that he has to go. And, he does.

That's it. I haven't had the dream since. But, I miss him still.


Angela said...

Amy, sweet Amy! I love you for this story! For recognizing this wonderful man, for understanding his way of teaching, for having really really profited from him, and you know, for having given back to him! If it had only been for you, his life would have been worth while!
Oh, how I enjoyed the scene where he made the Mr. Tall and Handsome look small!
But do you also see that you STARTED the whole love affair you had (I know it was a platonic one, but love it was!) by being brave in the first place? So forget all your in-between miseries and always go back to your school days when you ever doubt yourself. YOU ARE BRAVE! And you are loved. Not only by, well, everybody, but also by ME! Thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

Amy, awesome words about a great man. I had him for a couple of classes and the thing I loved the most was how his presence alone commanded respect. He treated everyone evenly and fairly. He didn't care from where you came, he just cared that you gave effort and tried to learn. Once again a great man and great words from you.
Bob F

Amy said...

Tears in my eyes again, Angela. You told me to get happy and this is what happens!

Actually, your message makes me ever so happy. Truly, a million thanks. It means so much.

Promises post...happy happy happy!

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...


I have always wondered through the years if Major had the kind of impact on others as he had on me. I'm pretty sure that no matter whether he did or not, that he somehow managed to touch all of us in some way.

Thanks so much for your comment. It's nice to have someone who knew him to share the memory with.

Tom Milliren said...


Thanks for the posting on my uncle. Although I only met him once, I see a lot of what you said about him in my father and his other brother. I will share your story with the rest of the family.

Tom Milliren

Amy said...


Unbelievable! I don't know how in the world you landed on my blog, but I'm so glad that you did! Obviously, your uncle meant a great deal to me and to many others. Thank you so very much for leaving a comment. It means the world to me.


Ronda said...


Very heart warming. Such an example that ones opinion (even if it is the older sister's) is not always as it seems. I love you because you have the ability to see great things in all people. As for seeing you as a scared, defenseless girl...........well I will have to work on that. Thanks for sharing a great story with all of us!!