Mr. Schwartz passed away earlier this week. I want to take a moment to honor a great teacher and think about his legacy.

I do not remember the lessons that my Latin and Ancient Greek teacher taught. I could not possibly tell you a single bit of vocabulary of grammar for the years I spent learning those subjects.

Nor could I tell you anything about Mr. Schwartz the human being. I know that he was married and I know that he had a great sense of humor. I know that he was loved and feared by students. I made the mistake of not doing my homework twice and didn't need to make a third mistake.

Human beings fear death. I know that other animals don't want to die but we are, as far as I know, the only species that can envision our finality. In some ways it is a blessing in that we can make plans and choose to live a life that we find meaningful beyond the pursuit of immediate needs. But for the most part knowing that we will die is not a wonderful thing.

Ernest Becker suggested in his book, The Denial of Death, that the actions we take in our life are driven, in large part, as a coping mechanism to deal with our inevitable death.

Some people choose destructive mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. Others choose a "defiant creation of meaning".

When I think about how human beings attempt to outlive their physical reality I see three main avenues through which we can create legacy that can outlast us:

  • Our genetic legacy: Our children carry half of our genes, which allows some aspect of us to live out into the future beyond ourselves. If our children have children and continue to perpetuate our genetic line then we continue to drive a part of ourselves into the foreseeable future. This is probably the easiest form of building a legacy in that all of life has been engaging in this legacy since the beginning of the species. Not everyone has children for various reasons so not everyone carries on a genetic legacy.
  • Our works: As long as there is a United States of America there will be high schools named after Thomas Jefferson. As long as human civilization continues someone will read the works of William Shakespeare. People donate millions of dollars to have buildings named after them in order to have their name continue into the future. The problem with this kind of legacy is that not everyone has the money or the ability to create something that will last. Even people who create great works pass into obscurity - I have no clue who wrote the Pulitzer prize winning book in 1950 and as I quickly look it up I see that the prize was won by AB Guthrie Jr. I'm not a big enough fan of westerns to know his legacy but I suspect that as time goes on he will become less and less known. It is only an incredible few that can have a legacy that goes beyond a single generation.

There is one other way in which we leave a legacy. And it is one that I think is particular important for educators. It is our epigenetic legacy.

It's not that big of a deal Time Magazine - it just nature vs nurture

Epigenetics in a strictly biological sense refers to how the environment affects the expression of our genes. Exercise, diet, sunlight are all epigenetic factors that affect expression of particular genes. In another sense we can say that epigenetics are like information that affect an organisms responses.

When we tell someone a joke that makes them laugh we have changed that person. If they go on to tell that joke to someone else we have transmitted epigenetic information to that individual. They might tell the joke slightly different but there is still a transfer of information that is similar to the transmission of new life.

This epigenetic transfer is an important part of legacy building. It is how we transmit values to the next generation. It is how we build communities. It is how we maintain family traditions.

There is a tremendous amount of what makes you that is the result of epigenetic transmission. You didn't inherit your dad's laugh in your genes but through listening to him you subconsciously began to laugh like him.

The music that you love from your teenage years when your best friend loaned you his favorite CD is a kind of epigenetic transfer of information that changed your life. We are all engaging in a kind of epigenetic reproduction all the time. The conversation you had with someone in college that stuck with them and influenced their thinking is an epigenetic transfer of information. What is amazing about this is that the transfer happens regardless of your intent. For example, I reunited with a friend of mine from college the other day and she told me about a conversation that we had that affected her so much that it completely changed her religious outlook over time. I only kinda sorta remember the conversation.

That is the beauty of connecting, communicating and sharing. We transmit our epigenes to each other every single day; I am transmitting my epigenetic information to everyone reading this essay. Part of my motivation for doing that is to spread ideas. If we can spread ideas that matter to us we are sharing a part of ourselves that lives on beyond us. Comedians and great writers are the most prolific of the epigenetic transmitters the world has ever seen but on a smaller scale a great teacher is a meaningful transmitter of epigenetic information.

That, I think, is a big part of what Mr. Schwartz gave me. I don't teach his subject but I do think there are direct and indirect parts of my teaching that have been influenced by Mr. Schwartz. I try to convey enthusiasm with my own witticisms. I occasionally have a sarcastic moment or two with students. I even have stolen a line or two from Mr. Schwartz - "you bet your sweet bippy" has been a part of my repertoire for the past ten years at least.

I definitely consider myself to be a perennial student just like Mr. Schwartz was - his continued love of learning and pursuit of knowledge, going for a PhD just before he was getting ready to retire from teaching, is a trait I deeply admire and strive to emulate. In an article for the NY times Mr. Schwartz described his teaching

''Mostly what you're teaching is your own enthusiasm and how you learn,'' he said. ''The best classes are about the public education of the teacher. And I feel very lucky to be teaching a subject I'm still learning."

I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon this recipe for career happiness and joy. I find it amazing that someone is willing to pay me to continue to learn and share what I am learning with students. Mr. Schwartz's enthusiasm for the joy of learning wasn't something I could consciously articulate as his student but I absolutely recognized something in him that I wanted for myself.

I realized recently that, in my effort to continue to improve my understanding of biology, I do need to learn some Latin. If I want to develop my understanding of taxonomy and classification of life and the nature of plants and animals it will behoove me to learn some Latin and the Linnean classification system. It would be a fitting tribute to Mr. Schwartz if I returned to his subject this school year.

Linnaean Classification: Definition, Levels & Examples (with Chart) |  Sciencing
Lotta Latin up in this!

Mr. Schwartz has directly influenced the lives of the thousands of kids he has taught over his 50 years of teaching. But his influence ripples into the students of his former students who became teachers. His epigenetic legacy will live on so long as someone who is inspired by him will go on to inspire others.

At my 15 year reunion I told Mr. Schwartz that I have been using his line. He smiled, nodded his head and told me "I will be sending you a bill tout suite sir". Luckily he forgot... I could never afford to pay him what he rightfully deserves!

RIP Mr. Schwartz. Vivat Rex - Long live the king!