What I Learned From Richard Nixon’s Speechwriter

English: Ben Stein, actor, author and commenta...

English: Ben Stein, actor, author and commentator, speaks at a gala in honor of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, Washington, D.C.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Ben Stein,

I would guess the first time you meet some oneΒ  you probably don’t introduce yourself as a former speech writer for President Nixon. That has little if anything to do with politics and everything to do with what you have accomplished during the almost forty years since you worked as part of that particular administration.

My primary purpose in referencing it is because I think it makes for a more interesting headline than just using your first name or mentioning Ferris Bueller or some of your other acting roles.

We Know Each Other

It is probably a bit generous to say we know each other and more factual to say we spent time in the same place and that a twenty minute telephone call between the two of us taught me a significant lesson. More on that in a bit.

A thousand years ago you spent a semester at my high school and then wrote an article for Los Angeles Magazine about your experiences there. It would be an understatement to say your article offended many of us.

It would probably be helpful to share the article here with everyone or at least an excerpt but I haven’t been able to find a digital copy of it and the only hard copy I have is secured inside a storage facility.

However I did learn that NBC has a clip of you talking about your experiences at school. Here is what the description of the video says:

PART 3 OF 3: TEACHERS
IN INTERVIEW BEN STEIN (WHO SAT FOR ONE YEAR IN BIRMINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM) NOTES HE WANTED TO FIND OUT IMPACT OF TV ON STUDENT AND ADDS SOME TEACHERS ARE VERY FRIENDLY BUT POOR INSTRUCTORS. HE SAYS STUDENTS LEARN GOOD VALUES FROM FRIENDLY TEACHERS AND NOTES STUDENTS ARE NOT LEARNING BASICS ABOUT HISTORY. STEIN ASSERTS MOST TEACHERS DESERVE MEDALS FOR PATIENCE AND DILIGENCE. FORMER BIRMINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT RON SAFRAN NOTES HE GOT AN ACADEMICALLY REWARDING EXPERIENCE IN ONE YEAR AT BIRMINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL AND STATES STUDENTS CAN GET A LOT OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL. HE CONTENDS SOME STUDENTS DO NOT WANT TO LEARN BASICS AND SAYS SOME TEACHERS ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS AT BEING FRIENDLY.

What Are You Talking About?

Many of us were upset because we didn’t see you sitting in the classes honors and advanced placement classes. You didn’t interact with those of us who were preparing to take the world by storm and we didn’t want your words to sully the reputation of our school and hurt our chances of using it as a springboard to bigger and better things.

Or at least that is one of the reasons I remember people said they were upset. There were others but memories fade over time and there is a question about whether there is any value in trying to dig up the other reasons, whatever they were.

Misty Colored Memories

Not long after the magazine published your piece and the outrage was at its height we gathered in the newsroom on campus and made preparations to write and produce the “Ben Stein” edition of the Birmingham High School Courier.

I was the Editor-In-Chief of the paper. I remember speaking with our advisor about the issue and working with the staff to come up with story assignments. I don’t recall the topic of the article I took on, just that I had all of the righteous indignation an almost 18-year-old boy could come up with.

In my mind you were a very foolish adult who didn’t have a clue what he was talking about and I was determined to find you and make it clear how very wrong you were.

It never occurred to me that I might bite off more than I could chew or that a simple interview could go so very wrong.

The Telephone Call

I have always been fast on my feet and confident about my ability to handle myself in any situation and that confidence was buoyed by the arrogance of youth which is why I didn’t take any time to prepare questions in advance or do any research about you.

That was a big mistake.

It never occurred to me that you would push back against my allegations and assertions. I had figured you would just say I was right and that you were mistaken.

You were listed in the telephone book so it was easy enough to find you. I can still see myself sitting at the desk in my bedroom waiting for you to answer the phone and when you did you were gracious with me.

That is not to say I was obnoxious. I am confident I was polite, but none of that matters.

You told me what you saw and expressed concern about whether teachers were doing more than asking students to regurgitate facts and questioned whether critical reasoning and logical thought were part of our lessons.

Or so I remember it. The details aren’t as important as the lessons you taught me.

That call opened my eyes and made me understand the value of taking more time to prepare and to not underestimate others. It taught me to take a harder look at myself.

And it influenced me as a parent.

When I look at the education my children receive I always look for critical thinking and logical thought in the lessons.

Thank you for that, I appreciate it. If there is ever a follow up conversation I promise it will be far more interesting. πŸ˜‰

Regards,

Josh

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4 Comments

  1. Jacqui Trott November 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Fantastic piece Josh. Ben Stein sat next to me in Ms. Spectors class. He wined and dined me at Mortons and Spagos, offered to get me into UC santa Cruz, etc. Then the article came out. And he portrayed me as the biggest, most ignorant, most materiality fool that ever passed through the gates of Birmingham. Never had my feelings been so hurt, nor had I ever felt so betrayed. The whole experience soured me even further towards every adult I encountered. I know I’m not the only one who also was devastated. Ms. Spector was equally devastated. It’s intersting to read your take on it all these years later. Turns out I’m NOT dumb. And every Birmingham Brave I still know is kicking ass and taking names

    • Josh November 11, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      Hi Jacqui, I am so sorry you went through that. I have heard similar stories from others and though time has colored memories I don’t think so many of us would share so many similar feelings if there wasn’t something to it.
      Hope that life has been good for you in the years that have passed, it is only 5 right. πŸ˜‰ Wow, amazing to think how much time really has passed by. Hope you visit here again.

  2. Mary Stephenson November 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Hi Josh

    Funny, well may not be so for an 18 year old. A lesson for kids, they are really no match for adults that have been around for awhile. I can see where you might think that since someone actually wasn’t in the situation that they couldn’t make a judgement call on what they see. After one has lived as an adult for a number of years, they can come to better conclusions with less information.

    Sometimes teachers get it all wrong. When my daughter was in school and her math teacher had given her a lousy grade, but her work was correct, we went to the school to find out why. He said she was talking in class and was disruptive for others to get their work done. I told him fine, give her a lousy grade on her behavior, but give her the correct grade on her math. In the real world she will soon find out that behavior matters on the job and if she gets fired from a few jobs, she will learn that it isn’t all about your skills that count.

    Interesting experience for you and preparation can be extremely important for almost any difficult situation we encounter.

    Mary

    • Josh November 27, 2012 at 12:19 am

      Hi Mary,

      Part of the beauty of being a teen is the confidence you have in yourself and the knowledge that you know as much or more than everyone around you.

      ‘Old people’ couldn’t possibly know all that much, they are too busy working to pay attention to the world. πŸ˜‰

      Well, I learned a hard lesson but a good one from Mr. Stein. While I can’t recall all of the particulars I remember enough to know that he handled me and not the reverse.

      I understand exactly what you are speaking about regarding teachers. Some people have no business being in the field and though they may know a lot about a particular topic they do a very poor job of passing that on and getting along with the students.

      One of the lessons I have learned in the “real world” is that sometimes your ability to get along with others is far more important than your ability to do a particular job.

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