A tribute to the ‘Unretired Teacher’

Westwood English teacher B.G. Bradley 08-09



Guest Contributors

And when I am forgotten, as I shall be

And sleep in dull, cold marble, where no mention

Of me more must be heard of, say, “I taught thee.”

Cardinal Wolsey-Henry VIII Act 3, Scene 2

They say the Army gets smaller the longer you serve.

Despite there being nearly 500,000 active-duty soldiers spread across a sea of postings at home and abroad, it’s not uncommon for old acquaintances to cross lanes. When these chance reunions occur, the Army becomes less an expansive sea and more like a small-town sidewalk.

Such was the extreme case for us two small-towners. As unlikeliness goes, our convergence at the United States Military Academy at West Point is in a class by itself. After all, nearly 20 years ago, we were schoolmates at Ishpeming’s Westwood High School. Though our 2004 graduating class numbered around 90, it was apparently large enough for us to remain unaware of the other’s enlistment in the Army. This ignorance persisted even after we both became commissioned officers.

Our military careers charted unique courses, taking us from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to South Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina, New York, Colorado, Hawaii, and Georgia to Iraq, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Afghanistan. During our initially divergent voyages, we separately competed and were selected for teaching positions at West Point. The assignment entailed earning an advanced degree in English or philosophy before instructing cadets for three years.

That one small-town kid (and, to be frank, not a kid most teachers would have bet on) became a commissioned officer-much less an undergraduate educator-was unlikely That two “Yoopers” from the same remote Midwestern hamlet would end up at West Point–an institution whose graduates include household names like Grant, Patton, Eisenhower, Aldrin, and Krzyzewski (“Coach K”)–was uncanny. Yet, here we were, reunited: two high school classmates turned Department of English and Philosophy officemates at the nation’s oldest and most prestigious military academy.

From Westwood to West Point, what were the odds? Pretty good, actually, if you know what, or rather who, to look for.

Once we got to reminiscing, we realized our separate trajectories traced back to a particular high school creative writing class and a particular teacher, Mr. B.G. Bradley. Unknown to us then, he was the shared mooring from which we embarked on our separate journeys far from the familiar wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and into the unfamiliar wilderness of higher education.

This was a story that needed to be told. Following a year of procrastinating (some things never change!), we finally committed to the task and stowed ourselves away in various cafes to write. It didn’t take long before we drifted back to those high school halls and rediscovered what lodged Mr. Bradley’s class so vividly in our memory.

Throughout our four years at Westwood High, we viewed most classes as purely transactional: do “x” to get a grade “y” to support goal “z.” For better or worse, these classes were merely places for us to be at. In contrast, Mr. Bradley’s classes were nearly transcendental. They were a space to be in and to be. They were unbounded by the physical walls.

We remember how Mr. Bradley could quiet our noisy teenage world with just a writing prompt. Often, in the newfound silence, he would write alongside us and share with the class what writing had revealed to him. He led by example. He cared little that his rough drafts, like ours, could be clumsy or opaque. Standing unabashedly among us while breathing life into his paragraphs, he disarmed our fear of looking foolish by being unafraid to play the fool himself. When it was our turn to present some newborn poetry or prose, he’d whisper as we moved to the front, “Start strong, don’t apologize, and the audience will follow.” He knew the power of self-confidence tempered by humility.

When it came to grading our written creations, Mr. Bradley guided more than directed. Marginal notes became navigational beacons. Even the rare critical comment crested with encouragement. Whenever we’d employ the safe language of the commons, he’d challenge us to reveal our unique voices. Any student of Mr. Bradley will recall “cliche” scribbled in the margins adjacent to a perfectly bland line. If we steered away from creative horizons, he’d often write, “I have a vague picture. Give me one I can see. Details!” or “How else can you say this?” By empowering students to take the lead throughout the writing process, he made us feel worthy of being heard. What is more, he listened. In doing so, Mr. Bradley demonstrated that a great teacher inspires and is open to being inspired, that a great teacher can at once teach and be taught, and that a great teacher transforms pupils into peers.

Then, one day, Mr. Bradley retired from teaching.

Or so he thought.

That’s because great teachers never retire; in fact, this playwright, actor, author, publisher-and most of all, teacher-instructs students at West Point five days a week despite never having set foot on campus.

And just as he’s never been here, we’ve never truly left Mr. Bradley’s classroom; we continue to learn from him by reflecting on his demonstrated mastery of the science and art that is teaching.

Now, as teachers ourselves, we look back on Mr. Bradley’s creative writing class as a how-to guide: how to inspire others to engage in the thrilling process of giving form to feeling, how to thrive in that liminal space between an abstract idea and concrete keystroke, how to be still and solitary in thought; how-with mere words-to proclaim the intangible on paper.

With another semester upon us, we welcome a new raft of nearly 100 students streaming into our classrooms. But these undergraduates, soon-to-be military officers, are not merely ours to steward. They also belong to our high school creative writing teacher of 20 years ago, for he is very much present. Far from retired and never far from the helm, O Captain! My Captain! Thus, if asked, we will not say that Mr. Bradley “taught” us as the Cardinal asks of Cromwell in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Instead, we’ll say Mr. Bradley continues to teach.

EDITORS NOTE: Phil Tarvainen is a major in the U.S. Army and teaches English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a 2004 graduate of Westwood High School. Phil enlisted in the Army in 2009. He earned a commission from Northern Michigan University and deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. He received an M.A. in Literature and Cultural Theory from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Ben Ordiway is a major in the U.S. Army and teaches philosophy and officership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a 2004 graduate of Westwood High School. Ben enlisted in the Army in 2004 and deployed to Iraq in 2006 before earning a commission from the United States Military Academy in 2012. He received an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan.


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