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  • Max Stearns

Tribute to Ophair Caras, English Teacher, Newton South High School

When writing the post about 13 Reasons Why, see here, I pulled out my own high school yearbook, Regulus, hoping to capture some impressions about that chapter in my life. I had also been thinking about my sophomore English teacher, Mr. Ophair Caras. Mr. Caras was a formal man, a serious teacher with great insight into texts, and someone who even then was old school. He saw something in me, and as I think back to high school, I now realize that he affected me in a profound way.

My recollections are a bit dim and possibly imprecise. I graduated high school in 1979, and I took his class in the academic year 1976-77. Even so, my recollections about him are more distinct than for any other high school teacher, even those whose classes I took in later years. Newton South had three tracks, Honors, Track 1, and Track 2. His class was Track 1, and he pushed me to move onto the Honors English track the following year, which I did. That year, I somehow learned that Mr. Caras told my 11th Grade English teacher that I was tenacious, and for some reason, this concerned me. Perhaps I confused tenacity and relentlessness, or perhaps I didn’t appreciate its nuances even having looked it up. I remember asking Mr. Caras about it, and he assured me that he intended it as a compliment, that it was a character trait that would help me succeed.

One day in class, we were studying the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar. Mr. Caras explained that Julius Caesar was born of a Caesarian section. A young woman raised her hand and proceeded to ask if that was why his parents named him Caesar. Several students chuckled, and Mr. Caras somehow managed not to. Even now I can see the twinkle in his eye as Mr. Caras gently explained to my classmate that he suspected it was the other way around.

On another occasion, I remember sitting in his classroom alone with a friend and speaking about a girl I liked. Although I don’t recall who the friend, or the girl, was (apologies to both), I do remember what happened next. I had said something like “I don’t understand what she wants,” at just the moment when Mr. Caras walked in. He turned to me, and asked: “Why don’t you ask her?” Stunningly simple, wise, counsel from an experienced adult. As such, I’m quite sure that at the age of 15, I didn't take it.

I once had the opportunity to interview Mr. Caras, I believe for the school newspaper. I had done some research, and I learned that he graduated with a degree in history from Columbia University. I asked Mr. Caras why he taught English given that he had majored in history. Mr. Caras’s answer always stuck with me. I have often told this story my law students. He said: I love English because there is absolutely nothing in the world that is interesting that is irrelevant to what I teach. I have always loved his answer. I tell my own students that this is also true of what I teach, Constitutional Law. Everything important relates. In many ways, it is also true of Law and Economics, a course that virtually embraces the entire law school curriculum.

As I look back, I know that Mr. Caras was right. He managed to capture in me something that mattered. If I have a secret weapon, it isn’t smarts, it isn’t wit, and it isn’t grit. It’s tenacity. I don’t say this out of modesty, and yes, these things relate, but they aren’t the same. What excites me, what focuses my mind, is solving puzzles. Not the ones on a table. I have no patience for those. I mean intellectual puzzles. I once told a dear old friend, a highly successful lawyer, that as a law professor, I happen upon puzzles in the law, sometimes small, sometimes large, and I keep at it until I figure them out. My friend, who has known me since freshman year in college, was amused. He told me that this has always been what I do, ever since he knew me freshman year.

I admire people with grit. These are the people who want to accomplish great things, to achieve a level of success, or status, and who find a pathway. Through shear pluck they overcome the challenge, often against great odds, and then we read about them. Although I admire them, I’m not one of them. I’m a law professor. What excites me is the world of ideas. When I see a puzzle, it calls out to me to be solved. I can’t let it go. It’s what I do. I’m tenacious. Somehow Mr. Caras saw that in me when I was 15 or 16 years old. It’s forty years later, and I’m now 56. I’m still at it.

What I admire most about Mr. Caras is that he was paying attention. One of the lessons of 13 Reasons Why is just how important that is, especially during the vulnerable high school years. Mr. Caras saw something others did not, and he cared enough to push me further. Although I’m probably older now than he was then, I’m still honored to think of Mr. Caras as my teacher. I hope that I might continue to pass along his wisdom to students of my own.

As always, I welcome your comments below.

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