The news of a sad farewell is sweeping the Hilltop. Our beloved guitar strumming, Groove Pavement band member, violin tuning, Blues Band player, Coffee House creator, Prom motivator, and by far the grooviest English teacher ever, Mr. Flachsbart, known affectionately as Flachs, is retiring. The good news is that we have 40 years of learning and memories to treasure. So, grab the tissues and crank up some Grateful Dead; let’s strike a rockin’ farewell chord. It is impossible to distill Flachs into one brief article, so let’s get the band back together for this fond finale.
Former English teacher Frank Henson, also beloved, tried to enumerate the countless ways Flachs has molded students. “The way he removes his corduroy sports coat and settles into his beloved chair, crosses his legs, and begins searching for a new way to show his love of literature to another class, 16 more students — how many does that make in total? How many students have heard him play the violin? How many poets has he helped create? How many students remember something he’s said? How do you quantify the effect that he has had on generations of readers, writers, and thinkers? How many times have people done a Stephen Flachsbart imitation?”
Well, believe it or not, Flachs, a former math teacher, has crunched the numbers! At SLS, Flachs has had 22,000 class periods, 2,000 different students, come to school 6,400 times, driven 200,000 miles back and forth, and written 7,150 report card comments. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, Flachs can measure out his years in coffee spoons. I learned that in Flachs’ class.
Flachs’ class runs the gamut from McEwan’s Atonement to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. You never know where a beginning thought will end. He enjoys creating what he calls “smackdowns” with our problematic sentences from an in-class quiz. Cate Matthews ‘21 recalls “hiding in the corner as your essay was included in the Mistakes Made Monday document.”
Somehow Flachs manages to make our mistakes entertaining without us feeling judged or embarrassed. Seeing Flachs beaming and animated, even under his mask, that nodding face and enthusiastic expression, makes us try even harder.
In his class, we learned to expect the unexpected. One of my personal favorite memories was when Flachs picked up his guitar, sat in the middle of class, and started strumming and singing “Teenager in Love.” We were energized by his spontaneity. Cate Mattews agrees. One of her favorite memories was “Flachs playing mood music on the fiddle as we wrote our in-class essays.”
Flachs’ classroom shelf tells quite a tale that would fascinate an archaeologist: photos, plastic water bottles, papers, books, a baseball, a guitar stand, stereo speakers, a Ouija board, a picture of the Beatles, matches, and pens, all clues as to who this spontaneous, creative, fun-loving, extraordinary teacher is. Often in class, we take pleasure in passing around a picture of Flachs with long hair, his chin resting on his fiddle. That was him in college in 1974. As a kid, Flachs was, in his words, “a rebel. I had hair down to my shoulder blades.” He was in a band. “It was all about being in a band.”
When asked which high school clique he was in, Flachs says without hesitation, “Freak! Most assuredly.” Wondering how Flachs did in English? “I was okay.”
But he wanted to be an English teacher: “I was sincere about all that ‘60s mindset thing, and the idea of working for some corporation that made money was immoral. That was the Man! Promoting some product…screw that! What kind of life is that?” And what kind of life would it be at SLS without Flachs?
How did Flachs first come to arrive at the Hilltop? Forty years ago, after a fateful meeting with Mr. Cantrick, the head of the English department at the time, Flachs got the job. He packed up his bags and left Boston. “I had to borrow a car to get here.” For some perspective, the year Flachs started at SLS, Ms. Perry was seven. He started when our school was not even a quarter of the size and just a brick building. There were a couple of portable classrooms down where the tennis courts are…and that was it! John Henson ‘86 remembers, “Back then, he taught in a trailer. Yeah, you read that right — a trailer. It was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and smelled dank, like a basement. But it was the only class I looked forward to.”
Flachs describes how they used to sell donuts out the window where the Fireplace Commons is now. (The good ole days!) “It really seemed like a fly-by-night operation, I’ll tell ya.” Flachs has taught Mr. Raffaele, Mr. Lebris, and Mr. Parsons and remembers when Ms. Gabriele was an English fellow…oh, the stories he can tell! Once, a fistfight erupted in his room. He recalls, “I swear it took me ten years until I actually felt like I was good at it. The first ten years…” Flachs paused and started laughing. Surely you’ve heard his boisterous and utterly unforgettable laugh that reverberates all the way to the lower library. “I constructed my concept of a teaching persona that wasn’t me,” he continued, “and finally, around then, I was able to merge myself with it, and it made all the difference. The real bonus of this job was interacting with the students, and the literature part of it was secondary.”
Where is Flachs headed? Flachs says, “I’m really good at chilling. Between bike riding, fiddle playing, walking my dog, traveling.” He said he doesn’t have any major, earth-shattering plans. He might do some writing. His ideal situation involves a modest house paired with moving from Airbnb to Airbnb. One thing he does know: “I would love to drive around in all old, beat-up sports car. An old Triumph or something.”
His favorite book? The Great Gatsby; he taught it every year. But when I asked about his favorite memory, he looked pensive and then shook his head, “I can’t do it.” But then, right as I got up to leave, Flachs adds, “You know the best is when in the middle of the class someone says something, and you know it’s just all positive. That’s better than some specific thing that’s happened.” We couldn’t agree more.
Now for some favorite Flachisms from the SLS community past and present!
On the bus [while chaperoning the sophomore overnight camp experience to the Poconos], I find myself sitting next to none other than Steve Flachsbart. He was the first member of the faculty I really met in a meaningful way…And I just found myself thinking, despite the fact that this is not even remotely what I had in mind when I said ‘yes, I would like to come and teach at St. Luke’s,’ if there are people like him that teach here, I bet I’m going to love it.
Doron Lowenberg ’21
I think that my favorite Flachs memory has to be at prom. Seeing him go wild for ‘September’ was the highlight of my night, and it’s a really good example of the infectious joy and passion he brings to everything, whether it’s dancing or teaching. It was awesome, and I’m going to miss that joy in my life.
Cate Matthews ’21
Mr. Flachs has always made sure that we’re simultaneously dissecting literature and having fun. Some of my most memorable classes at St Luke’s have been in his classroom, digging into our zodiac charts or acting out the witches scene in Macbeth (voices and all). He’s also made a big effort to teach us youngsters about classic music. I wouldn’t know half of what I do about the Beatles or Joan Baez without his help.
Shall I tackle the man, the music, the poet, the comic, the cyclist, the fiddler, the retro mannequin of skinny ties, or the teacher of thousands first? Oh, the possibilities.
You do not merely deliver the goods. You inspire. You energize. You produce—as Gwendolen might say—‘vibrations.’ For the 22 years by your side, and the 18 before me, your students have drunk deep of the mystery of things. Like fine maestros everywhere, your range is broad and eclectic—from Grendel’s howls to Gatsby’s dreams to Malcolm’s rage—but it is a mistake to think that you are kin to anyone at all. There never was anyone quite like you.
I speak for myself and for our wonderful English department: losing you is a heartbreak—you are that strange creature in life: an irreplaceable. But the shores of Old Saybrook await—with Nancy and Violet and the fab three—music and books and cycling aplenty.
Sure, I could imitate him.
But that’s what everyone who knows Stephen Flachsbart can do.
Instead, consider this: the profile I have of him in my memory, his head inclined toward his instrument so that his chin holds it in place as he fiddles through countless school coffeehouses, fiddles, and emcees, cajoling first-time poets and closet crooners up to the mike to share the moment.
Also, this: the placement of his readers on the bridge of his nose as he reads his poetry, and the removal of them afterward for the castaway stare as he talks about the next poem.
How about this: seeing him through the windshield of the car as he climbs the big hill from the reservoir on his bike on a warm day in September, getting one more ride in before the season takes over.
It all comes back to the Flachsbart imitation, doesn’t it? Thus, we end where we began, with this author, admirer, colleague, and friend, leaving the mimicry to folks in real-time, while the proof of Stephen’s dedication, passion, and impact is preserved in the amber of my fond memories.
Congratulations on your retirement, Stephen. Keep it alive!
John Henson ’86:
When he spoke, he rolled his chalk back and forth between his hands, like he was trying to start a fire. As a result, those hands were always covered in chalk dust. The way a mechanic’s hands are stained with grease or a miner’s face is stained with coal. It was physical evidence of his dedication. His craft. His passion.
It was junior year when academic expectations take a giant leap forward, SATs are taken and you get a taste of how hard college might be. Truth be told, I had never been a dedicated student. In fact, this was my second junior year, having transferred into St. Luke’s as a reclamation project who wore out his welcome in public school. This was my last chance to get back on track, buckle down and “live up to my potential.”
I’d love to tell you I discovered the secret to straight A’s, but I didn’t. I discovered something better. I discovered my passion for language as a form of art. And he felt it. And that meant something to me.
Today, more than 30 years later, it’s still my passion. And it all began right there in that crappy trailer, watching him roll chalk in his dusty hands.
It won’t surprise Mr. Flachsbart to know I’m still not the best English student. I’m sure this includes grammatical mistakes or a missing Oxford comma, and maybe even a misspelling. But I trust, like back then, he can feel my heart when I say…thank you. Thank you for leading me to my passion.
It was that first or second year of my teaching that Steve and I tossed around the idea of creating an open mic type of space for students; hence what would become Coffee House. Perhaps similar to our own sensibilities about music and music performance, we both felt it was important for students to have an open, comfortable environment for sharing writing and music. After I left SLS to explore other horizons for eight or so years, Steve carried the torch of Coffee House through what was a “Golden Era” of sorts – at one point, it was so popular that there was a senior Coffee House they would hold in the SPAC, complete with full bands and well-rehearsed acts. Coffee House has been a true testament to the Field of Dreams concept, “if you build it, they will come.” And behind that, Steve has kept that alive for all this time.
My friendship with Steve extended beyond the classroom, notably when I moved into the same town as him, eventually coming together to form our band, Grooved Pavement, playing, you guessed it, the music of the Grateful Dead. We’re now a 6- piece acoustic outfit, and we’ve been playing in and around Bethel for almost three years. Steve is the fiddle player, always ready to rip out a blues solo and otherwise steadily holding down grooves on the violin.
Flachs, I was lucky enough to be one of your students in your last year of teaching. The second I stepped into your classroom, I knew I was getting the quintessential SLS experience. I looked forward to class and your spontaneous guitar playing every day. Too many laughs in class to quantify! (Remember when you erased my dreams?) I speak for everyone when I say, in a variation of the song, We Can’t Hide Our Love Away, but we look forward to seeing you drive off in your Triumph with your paper coffee cups and fiddle in hand as you embark on this next magical mystery tour!