Class of ‘61 Valedictorian returns to MHS

Tress Dorfler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

The valedictorian of MHS’s first graduating class, Phil Blackwell, visited his former high school on Wednesday, March 2, as a guest speaker in the classes of English Teacher Jim Drier. 

After Drier read an article in the Chicago Tribune about Blackwell and his friendship with a former MHS English teacher, George Ariffe, he decided to invite the former student back to MHS. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! Phil Blackwell, first MHS valedictorian, I’m going to reach out to him,” Drier said about reading the Tribune article published in 2009. 

Blackwell and Ariffe previously visited MHS twice since Drier’s initial reading of the article in order to share their story about friendship and healing.

 “[Ariffe] cared about his students in ways that had nothing to do with what your rank was in class,” Blackwell recalled of his former teacher. 

Blackwell inspired many of the students on his most recent visit with his remarkable story about healing through friendship and poetry. 

“He taught me how to read by listening to what a person had written and finding out what it is that that poem or short story speaks to me. It sensitized me to people communicating,” Blackwell said.

In 1961, when MHS was newly built as a way to handle an overcrowding issue at Fremont Township Consolidated High School, Blackwell and his favorite teacher, Ariffe, were transferred to MHS.

Blackwell graduated from MHS and went on to become a pastor through Yale University’s divinity school and then eventually through the divinity school at the University of Chicago. Even though Ariffe retired from teaching, the two kept in touch. When Ariffe suffered from a stroke, Blackwell went to visit him in the hospital. 

“I heard about the stroke, and I came up to see him, and he was just lying there completely unresponsive, and I just didn’t know what to say, but some of his poems came back to me,” Blackwell said. 

The poems were a part of a book that Ariffe himself had a hand in producing. To Blackwell, it became a full-circle moment, a pupil reading the same poems that his teacher once read to him.

“I saw George lying there, and he couldn’t talk, but he was a talker, a quoter and a communicator with people,” Blackwell recounted. “And he couldn’t talk– like Milton, the poet, who [couldn’t] see.”

After Blackwell recited John Milton’s poem “On His Blindness” to his former teacher, Ariffe mustered a one-sentence response: “I want to die.”

“It turns out that apparently I was the only person, including all the staff of the hospital, who did not say to him, ‘Oh, don’t say that George; you’re going to be okay,’” Blackwell said. “If someone says to you, ‘I want to die,’ you don’t correct them.”

Instead, Blackwell devised a plan to come back with another poem that had been previously taught to him, and Blackwell started to note some progress with Ariffe. 

“As he began to get a little stronger, I began to bring in different poems,” Blackwell said. “My job was to figure out what poems would be fitting to give him words to say what he couldn’t speak.”

Relationship stories like Blackwell’s and Ariffe’s are integral to learning, Drier noted.   

“[Author Kurt Vonnegut] said teaching is all about relationships,” Drier said. “This is evidence because [Blackwell] had a relationship with [Ariffe]. It was significant. Not every teacher and student has that.”

English Teacher Mike Dayton shared a similar belief– that teacher-student interaction is what develops students. 

“Those relationships [between teachers and students] are what bring us together,” Dayton said. “It’s what keeps us together. Those relationships are what we’re able to build on and what we’re really trying to teach, so we can have kids that are citizens of the world, not just good at reading a story or doing a math problem.