Marvin Shagam arrived on the Thacher scene in 1958-- my junior year or as it used to be called in the dark ages-- Lower Upper year.
He was a little weird, a little quirky. He had a comb over and he wore that hat. We weren’t sure what to make of him.
Let me give you some context. The school was way different. There were no grass fields and no gym. We played soccer on hard packed dirt. The teachers—all male-- were smart, supportive and dedicated as they are now, but they were tough. Touchy-feely was not part of the curriculum. Parents packed you off in September and didn’t see you until Thanksgiving. Let me put it this way: Being invited to the Head’s house on a Saturday night for chocolate chip cookies? I don’t think so.
And it was all boys. We saw girls on vacations and at a couple of school dances. That was all. Rock ‘n roll was 3 years old. “Catcher in the Rye” wasn’t dissected in English class; it was just a cool book we passed around.
Now along comes Mr. Shagam, who exuded gentleness, virtue, sincerity and total lack of guile. Who is this guy???
All the teachers had nicknames, and his was Spike, the origin of which is unknown, at least to me. No one knew much about him. Soon there were rumors. He had been in some secret Special Forces unit. He allegedly said early on to a student: “I can cause intense pain and create unconsciousness in a few seconds.” Was this outwardly gentle and introspective man a killer? Nobody tested the claim.
I got to know Mr. Shagam well early on. This was before he taught Latin and before the days of Holocaust studies and his famous road trips. He was the coach of fourth team soccer, and I was the captain. I don’t remember much about his coaching skills. I do remember his pre game pep talks. Instead of “let’s go get ‘em” or “kill Cate” he read us Greek poetry. He meant to inspire us. We thought it was dorky.
The following year soccer was so popular that there were five teams. And Marvin, who again coached the fourth team and again read pre game poetry, made a remark that just was so….Marvin. He said to a gathering of fifth teamers with the sincerity that only he could muster: “Don’t be disappointed about being on the fifth team. I think a lot of you are definitely fourth team caliber.” Every time we saw each other for the next 50 plus years, this was the first thing he said to me.
I’m not sure when the transition came--when Marvin evolved from an interesting quirky teacher to beloved Thacher Mr. Chips-like icon. Others will speak to this. What I do know is that every time I came back to Thacher I made a point to sit at his breakfast table. And never once did I not learn something. And one year my wife and I bid a ridiculous amount of money at the Parent Auction just to have dinner with him.
And another thing I know—but it’s our secret. It can’t leave this room. Deep down, and maybe not so deep down, Marvin was a conservative. I know this from decades of discussing politics, issues foreign and domestic and his opinions of various office holders. And I think we could all agree that Marvin was, and would continue to be horrified by this year’s Presidential race.
Great teachers are a rare treasure. Even more rare is the power to inspire. And Marvin inspired generations of Thacher students. Marvin really wanted to know what you thought and what you were up do long after you graduated. He wasn’t just doing it to be nice. He was so focused on you that to this day I don’t know anything about his early life, his family, where he grew up, his background, his religion, his financial circumstances or even whether he had siblings.
So hail and farewell, Marvin Shagam. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for teaching my daughters. But I’m sorry and kind of angry you won’t be teaching my grandchildren. I always assumed you would. You made your mark on thousands of students. Students who admired and loved you. And learned values and standards and ethics and morality from you.
You were the rock of right and wrong. If there’s a more important life accomplishment, I don’t know what it is. Rest in peace, Marvin. Or as you would insist it be said:
Requiescat in pace.