How This Teacher Changed Lives
A 'secular saint,' he gave his life to his students
What happens when a man destined for the clergy suddenly believes himself to be unfit for the position? What can a man do, expecting that his career would be to serve God, and then be so shattered by an experience that he does not feel worthy of the church?
This was the dilemma faced by a man named Edwin Barlow, as detailed in the memoir “Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow.”
“A man must make the conquest of fear before he can begin to live.”
By most accounts, Barlow was just another child of the Depression. Born in 1922 to a family on the outskirts of Boston, Barlow was a devoted attendee of Sacred Heart Church. From a very young age, his giving spirit and generosity were noted by the clergy — and there was every expectation that he would enter the seminary.
Alas, World War II intervened. Edwin Barlow was in a difficult position. The only thing he was more devoted to than the church was his mother, Agnes. She was a strong and kind woman, but when her alcoholic husband was found dead on a Detroit street, Barlow and his brothers all chipped in to maintain the household.
Edwin Barlow had so devoted himself to serving God that he was eminently qualified to sit out the war as a conscientious objector. Every fiber of his being told him that war was wrong — regardless of how just it may be — and that taking a man’s life was still in violation of God’s commandment.
Yet in an act of extraordinary sacrifice, Barlow joined the Army, for the sole purpose of sending his meager paycheck back home to his mother. The sacrifice amounted to something far greater than he could have ever expected.
He served with the 17th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, which rip-roared across northern France just weeks after the Normandy invasion, moving so quickly to secure roads and bridges that medics weren’t able to travel with them. It was during this campaign that the first of many Nazis fell to shots from Edwin Barlow’s rifle.
These justified killings shattered the man. Despite his steadfast faith, Barlow was so devastated by the breaking of God’s commandment that he fell into alcoholism, and after returning home, lost his way. He desperately wanted to serve God, yet despite his own clergy’s insistence that God forgave him for all acts, especially those occurring in war, Edwin Barlow’s own moral compass simply refused to reset. He absolutely could not join the clergy.
He sought another path. He considered joining the Christian Brotherhood, founded in 1802 by Venerable Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, ostensibly to educate Irish Catholics who were otherwise prevented from receiving an education by the Protestant English government.
As described, “a Christian Brother is a layman who takes vows of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, but does not serve in a parish or receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. They may serve the mission of the Church in a variety of ways, including teaching.”
Edwin Barlow did not join the Brotherhood because, according to his brother, God showed him another path. He found a new calling: education. He went to college at Holy Cross and then got his master’s in education at Harvard University. Shortly thereafter, he settled in the little town of Chappaqua, New York — where he taught at Horace Greeley High School for 35 years.
Most of all, his greatest teaching was that of fortitude. His class was demanding, and one wrong move from a student could result in a world-class tongue lashing.
There is no simple way to describe his classes. Imagine a cross between John Houseman in “The Paper Chase,” a less-sadistic but equally demanding version of J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash,” and football coach Bill Parcells. His class was, as one student described it, “a boot camp for life.” Yet Barlow taught more than just mathematics — he taught his students about life. This was tough love, and delivered with references to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas in the slyest ways possible. He consistently “buried the lede,” so to speak.
Aquinas identified faith, hope, and charity as the three theological virtues. Barlow incorporated these into his own life and taught them to us, his students. He maintained his faith. He offered hope to even the weakest of students, teaching them that attention and hard work would be rewarded.
Nobody ever knew the stories of charity until well after he died. But not only did he leave everything he owned to the Education Fund, he quietly paid the tuition for several brilliant students who came from lower-income families.
Aquinas also identified the four cardinal virtues as prudence (judging between virtuous and vicious actions), temperance (the practice of moderation), justice (the proper allocation of things), and fortitude (courage). Certainly two of these virtues played a daily role for Barlow. He was under enormous temptation to give in to alcohol, yet was able to strike a deal with himself to never permit it to affect his teaching.
Most of all, however, his greatest teaching was that of fortitude. His class was demanding, and one wrong move from a student could result in a world-class tongue lashing. It was, to a certain extent, an act. Based on the hardships of his early life, he knew his students would be facing a dangerous world and absolutely needed to be prepared. More than that, however, it was fortitude that defined his own life.
In Walter Farrell’s “Companion to the Summa,” the importance of Fortitude is described. “A man must make the conquest of fear before he can begin to live. He must sustain that conquest of fear as long as he hopes to continue to live humanly. For he is surrounded, indeed, penetrated with dangers; if he shrinks from those dangers, he is forever paralyzed. The dangers will not be dissolved by his cowardly attempts to escape them.”
Edwin Barlow did not shrink from fear. It was his faith in God that propelled him through it. Those of us who studied with him saw just how powerful that faith could be — even though we never knew of his own struggles, for he kept his entire past a mystery.