I could still hear the sound of my mom’s voice ringing in my ear: “Junior year is a big year. You might as well take it seriously because it’s the most important year in all of high school. After all, college is on the line.”
So after hearing such words of wisdom repeated over and over again–let’s just say, a handful of times–and feeling motivated as ever, the summer came to its unfortunate end and I found myself standing outside the brick and ivy walls of the high school. There I was, once again–back at square one–wondering where the time had gone. It was the picturesque, stereotypical scene you’d find in literally any 80s movie about the first day of high school: your everyday teenage guy, looking dazed and confused, standing outside the school, schedule in his right hand, waving to the ladies with his left. So just as it goes in most of those movies, I entered the glass doors to the commons, my confidence soaring through the roof. Well, before I get ahead of myself, I have to be honest. I wasn’t as confident as I like to remember.
Ever since mid-July when the high school sent out the schedules for the upcoming school year, there was one name on the list that drew a lot of attention. Former students of his had warned me of what I was about to be getting myself into. Some even argued that the course itself was nearly impossible. Others said that of the two teachers, he’s not the one you want if you’re looking for that easy “A.” I was clueless–not knowing what to expect–lacking the slightest idea, even as I made my way up the stairs and to the third floor on the first day of his class: AP U.S. History. With my blood pressure a tad bit higher than healthy, trying to figure out what kind of joke I’d make to put out a good first impression, I anxiously stumbled my way on over to room 383. The door was wide open, but the room itself seemed oddly quiet. I peered my head through the side of the door, only to catch a quick glimpse of the makeup of his room, draped in both Northwestern University and University of Virginia pennants, along with traditional Japanese artwork, a blown-up purple alien, and some sort of animal hide above his desk. Maybe he’s not as hard as some make him out to be, I thought to myself. I mean, after all, he’s got a blown-up purple alien.
And just like that, class was underway. There he was, live and in the flesh, each one of the rumors about to unfold in front of my eyes. Over the summer, he had assigned the newcomers to read and complete a packet of questions–rather lengthy, I might add– from four different chapters from throughout the textbook. To top off the assignment, we were to create a cover page, putting an image of an event from any of the time periods from any of the designated chapters we had been assigned to read. So as the class began, after he briefly introduced himself, he went around collecting each one of our assignments. With each one he picked up, he looked over the image, analyzed it, and in a matter of seconds spewed out a detailed rundown of the twenty-two different images; off the top of his head, without stutter, as if it were second-nature. As he made his way through the several rows of desks, I sat back in my chair, jaw to the floor, amazed at how he was able to recall such specific details seemingly at will. It came to him effortlessly, yet his delivery was intriguing and had you listening for more. I had known him for five minutes now, and he already came across as the smartest man I had ever met. Though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, something about his style of teaching–moreover his presence alone–drew me in. From that moment going forward, any doubts I had were left at the door, and I knew class with him wasn’t going to be like any other I’d been in before. Looking back on it now–nine months later–I can safely say that, Mr. Kuhl, you truly are one of a kind.
As crazy as it may sound, Mr. Kuhl wasn’t always destined to become a teacher. Prior to his teaching days, Mr. Kuhl admitted that right out of high school, he would have never imagined becoming a teacher. He mentioned, “I didn’t really have a career to be a teacher per se, I simply went to college living out what my father wanted me to do, which was to follow in his footsteps and become a general practitioner.” As it turns out, the medical field wasn’t cut out for him, leading him to shift his attention towards possibly becoming a business major at the Kellogg School of Management before finally fixing on his true passion: History. Shortly after his enrollment at Northwestern University, Mr. Kuhl discovered that he was naturally good at taking history courses, and that they came across as far more interesting than any class he had taken before. This new profound interest of his, along with his lifelong ability to take complex information and make it digestible for a general audience to understand, set the stage for a 30-plus year tenure of teaching down the road. That said, following his time spent at both Northwestern University and the University of Virginia, where he pursued his post-bachelors degrees, it wasn’t long before Mr. Kuhl landed a teaching job at what once was Forest View High School in Arlington Heights. Even with the school’s inevitable closure due to a lack of funds, Mr. Kuhl tested the waters of teaching and added a year of experience under his belt before settling into what he would call home for the next three decades.
At the time of his arrival here at the high school back in ‘86, much of the school then would be virtually unrecognizable to students today. There were still two campuses in use, the school itself was physically smaller, the administration altogether was entirely different and more hands-on and family oriented, and the demanding pressures of getting into the university of choice was a problem dealt with by only a select few. However, as much of the school itself has changed, little has regarding Mr. Kuhl himself. Ever since that August of his first semester as a teacher, Mr. Kuhl has taught World Civilizations as an introductory course to incoming freshmen, and AP U.S. History to the brightest minds at the high school for little over 20 years now. But as the years have gone by, Mr. Kuhl has gained notoriety for having some of the most difficult classes in the entire school. And let me tell you–speaking from personal experience–it really is no walk in the park. But that’s the point: it shouldn’t be easy. After all, when I asked him what his own take was on the rigor of his classes during our interview, he leaned back in his chair, shot me a subtle grin and joked around as he said, “At least for my incoming freshmen, school is no longer, let’s sit back, watch a movie, and eat a cupcake.”
As I sat there, reminiscing on the good ol’ days of cupcakes and nap times from school once upon a time, Mr. Kuhl sat upright, and spoke this time with a more serious tone to his voice:
“In all honesty, I don’t feel, in some respects, the class is too tough. I feel that sometimes the strongest students revel in the challenge. I believe that deep down students don’t want to be cheated either. I know they have busy lives and oftentimes will text and send emails complaining about the nature of the course demands, but if the students want to spend time here, they want to be enriched, they want to learn a skill, and they want to help themselves to the nature of the world. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to teach down to them.”
Any students of his–past or present–acknowledge the fact that his classes aren’t always all fun and games. But at the same time, the complaints and “frequent frustrations” end up saying more about himself as a teacher than the class as a whole. Though it may not come across as such at first, the class’s difficulty stems from Mr. Kuhl’s profound dedication and care to the growth of his students. When his students feel as if they’ve reached their breaking points and want to throw in the towel, Mr. Kuhl is there to assure them that the battle is not even halfway over, and that there is much more to be done. It’s simply the high standard he holds each and every one of us students to, knowing they are far more capable of achieving great things than they believe they are. Whether we realize it or not, Mr. Kuhl never fails to push his students to entirely new, challenging frontiers with each day, making us better along the way. By the time the school year comes to an end, and we find ourselves one step closer to college and to the future, Mr. Kuhl has high beliefs that his students will not only get into the college, but will absolutely thrive once they are there.
As if 30-plus years of teaching within the confines of the classroom wasn’t enough, Mr. Kuhl spent a great deal of his time spreading his intellect to the sports realm. In the earlier days of his teaching career, Mr. Kuhl coached both freshmen and sophomore boys’ basketball, girls’ track and field, girls’ badminton, and even served as the assistant head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team under the legendary coach, Jim Thiel, for three years. Following a back injury in the early 2000s, Mr. Kuhl shifted gears back towards the classroom, leading the scholastic bowl team to considerable success for the past 17 years. And while all that was going on, Mr. Kuhl stumbled upon managing the weight room by accident over thirty years ago and you can still find him down there to this day.
The most striking part of my interview with Mr. Kuhl came later on toward the final few minutes. I had asked him something along the lines of how the school has changed from the day he first set foot into the commons until now. After listing several superficial changes, he began to describe that the former administration, under the past superintendent, Dr. Robert Metcalf, was personal and relied on close-knit connections between the administration and the student population. This ultimately prompted Mr. Kuhl to revisit a specific memory during his time working under Dr. Metcalf. It was incredibly fascinating to hear him retell his account of the incident–not solely because of the story’s uniqueness–but the way he spoke so fondly of it. His eyes lit up. He was fully engaged. Had he not said anything, I would’ve believed it had taken place just hours before because it was that fresh in his mind. I could tell this was going to be good.
It was an early morning just like any other school day. Dr. Metcalf held a meeting before school with the entire high school faculty. The meeting was no different than what was usually expected, however, about halfway in, he paused for a moment or two as tears began to fill his eyes. Clearing his throat, Metcalf whole-heartedly presented to the room, “Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses; take a deep breath for all the human parts, the small things that make life so special.” When Mr. Kuhl finished his moving account of the event, it got me thinking, not so much in the context of the staff meeting with the former superintendent, but more so it came to perfectly represent the legacy of Mr. Kuhl.
Far too often, we become so oriented and focused on results that we fail to stand back and admire the beauty of the small things that help us achieve them. I’ll be the first to admit that at the beginning of the year–in the first few months of taking his AP U.S. History course–I was solely fixated on getting an “A” in the class and nothing beyond that. It didn’t hit me until much later that the grade was far less important than truly learning, taking in the often overlooked assets that make his class so memorable, and letting the grade sort itself out. Once I opened myself to this new perspective, I began to develop a greater respect for Mr. Kuhl. From his quirky mannerisms of biting his knuckles, to making obscure noises when handing back tests (that I continue to struggle to decipher to this day), the little facets that make Mr. Kuhl the man he is today become all the more admirable. His straight-shooting, tell-it-like-it-is nature and ability to say whatever is on his mind in a way that inspires those around him and promotes creative ingenious in his students is eye-opening. To this day, Mr. Kuhl never ceases to amaze me with the way in which he conducts class in a way that’s not only fun and relaxed but also serious and efficient.
As spring comes to its end, and the school year draws to a close, we can assuredly say–as much of an understatement it may be–that Mr. Kuhl’s presence will be missed. With that said, when we find ourselves out there in the real world and surprise ourselves by finding balance in the various obstacles that life throws at us, we’ll know who to thank. But in all sincerity, when we find ourselves being able to walk up to even the most intimidating of challenges, stare them straight in the eyes, and know that there’s nothing we can’t handle, we’ll know why. To our amazement, such challenges, in their simplest forms, may be no more difficult than sitting back, watching a movie, and eating a cupcake. Thank you, Mr. Kuhl. Thank you.