Have you ever sat down and thought about the people who made a profound impact on your life? You would likely begin with parents, close friends, personal mentors, inspirational heroes, and if you’re very lucky, teachers.
Friday night I learned that my high school history teacher passed away. We were not friends, and in fact I had not spoken with him in more than two decades. Honestly, I’m not sure if he would have remembered much about me after the many years and countless students under his watch. But his effect on my life is hard to overstate. The following are the flawed memories of my personal experience with an extraordinary teacher named Jeff Bramlett.
I met Mr. Bramlett in August of 1989 on my first day at Etowah High School. My status in the AIM program for gifted students and high test scores landed me in AP classes. I was awkward, tall, skinny, pimpled—not to mention nervous but cocky about just how damn smart I was. Two years of middle school had wrecked my enjoyment of history as taught in public schools, and I preferred to read on my own and talk to my history-junkie father.
Mr. Bramlett didn’t teach on that first day. He handed out a syllabus, made sure we understood our reading requirements—both from the textbook and supplemental sources. (Turns out he’d be a fan of photocopying well-written articles from journals and magazines since the textbook was pretty much crap and sucked the humanity and intrigue from even the most fascinating moments in history.) I remember he asked us to write down our opinions about who would be the Top Three most influential figures in the history of western civilization, and he would begin the class the following day by talking about those who got the highest student votes and comparing it to his own opinion on the subject. The end of class was casual chatting. I wasn’t even one of the students talking to the teacher in the final minutes, probably sneaking in a few pages of a dog-eared fantasy paperback or sketching out notes for the next session of my D&D campaign, or maybe I was stealing glances at the gorgeous brunette who sat to my right and a few rows back. But something the teacher said stood out.
Paraphrased and badly remembered: “It’s true. Montana isn’t actually part of the United States anymore. There was a border dispute with Canada a decade ago and we gave it up as part of a big land deal. But you’re not gonna read that in a school textbook or hear it on the news, because it makes America look bad.”
One brave teenager found that tidbit hard to swallow. Mr. Bramlett gave the student a level look. “Do you actually KNOW anyone from Montana?” He swept his gaze across the room for any of us following the conversation. We all kind of looked at each other, and had to concede that we did not. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” he asked as the bell rang, the loud old-school variety.
For the next 23 hours we AP History students began sharing this crazy factoid casually dropped by our teacher. When my Dad picked me up it was one of the first things I wanted to talk to him about. His response? “Either your teacher is an idiot or you are.” It was definitely me. I felt betrayed. Here’s a guy whose literal job it was to teach an advanced history course and before his first lecture he had spouted bullshit as if he were talking about the weather. I did my homework, too, as I poured through the yearly annual hardcovers that summarized all major events in any given year. Flipped to the Index, M, Montana, skim-skim-skim, next year. Nothing about Montana being not part of the United States, and in fact all kind of supporting evidence that it was most definitely a state in the Union. Not only did it have a star on the flag but it filled seats in Congress. I was legitimately angry, but couldn’t wait to prove to my teacher that I was right when he was wrong.
I wasn’t the only smartass AP student who couldn’t wait to show the teacher up. He only smirked, amused—I soon learned that Mr. Bramlett was a notorious prankster—but he said something that very much changed my life.
“If you only learn one thing from me this entire year, I hope it’s this: Don’t blindly accept information that’s spoonfed to you. Just because you see it in a textbook or a newspaper doesn’t make it true. If you hear it on TV or are told it by an authority figure doesn’t make it true. Use your own knowledge, your common sense, and check things from multiple sources. Don’t just accept anything, even if it’s from me.”
Before that day, unless something was billed as fiction I accepted it as gospel. And after my teacher spoke those words I was hungry for knowledge but constantly on the watch for misinformation, false assumptions, and downright lies. I became a junkie for alternate sources, additional opinions, and evaluating the credibility of information. It began a lifetime of skepticism and debunking, of seeing the world in shades of gray and matters of opinion instead of the stark contrasts of good and evil, right and wrong. A huge part of how my brain deals with the world was dark until Jeff Bramlett turned on the lights for me. And I never thanked him.
Mr. Bramlett taught his classes in the style of a good college professor. Unlike the boring dates, facts, and figures of middle school history lessons, he told us stories about conflict and drama and sex and betrayal and just how relatable and human even the figures of the distant past truly are. Places and events change, but humans stay the same. He gave history heart and humor and he asked questions that didn’t have answers, because the most important questions usually don’t.
I loved his class. It was my favorite part of the day. And then I nearly died.
Double-pneumonia landed me in a small local hospital in October for an extended stay, and then weakness and vulnerability to infection kept me home for the rest of ninth grade. Mr. Bramlett got the short-straw as my Homebound instructor, literally the only teacher I would have for the rest of the school year. He was available by phone, but otherwise he would come once a week to pick up completed assignments and take-home tests and drop off another batch. While I couldn’t say I missed going to school, I hated missing out on his lectures. Selfishly I wished he’d spend a full hour with me and teach a class of one.
While I was in the hospital he put his AP History class on hold. But once I was home he gestured over at my parents’ bookshelf, to the pride of my father’s collection, The Story of Civilization series by Will & Ariel Durant. He pulled out the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, and wrote down specific chapters and sections from the huge hardcover. “You’re a good writer, Jamie. I want you to go over each section of this book and write an abstract—summarize the important points in your own words, at least a solid paragraph but more if you need it. Collect them together and turn them in each week and I’ll give you notes.” He let me know how many I was expected to complete in the first week.
I tore through a lot of Durant that year and ended up with a three-ring binder filled with alternating pages of handwritten scribblings and double-spaced typewritten pages, with Mr. Bramlett’s notes in the margins in alternating colored pens. I only wish I knew what happened to that binder, and imagine it might have burned up with so much else when my parents’ old house burned to the ground several years ago.
My work for him made Mr. Bramlett proud—even as kept challenging my assumptions and conclusions—but I frustrated the hell out of him when it came to dealing with other teacher’s assignments. I was bored and lonely and miserable at home and terrible about doing work that didn’t interest me. My ninth grade AP English teacher sent home boring worksheets designed to test if I’d done the reading, not anything that engaged my critical brain or analyzed the material. So I would procrastinate and work on stuff that mattered to me, like my own stories. When he found out I had pages and pages of short stories but not a single completed English worksheet we got into a loud argument. “I don’t ever want you to stop writing, but life is going to be filled with doing a bunch of things you don’t want to do so you can have a damn hour for the things that actually matter. Do your work.” This life-lesson is one I have always struggled with, but he tried his best to teach it.
I survived pneumonia and ninth grade and when I started the following year at the brand-new Sequoyah High School, Jeff Bramlett not only migrated there but was the head of the AP Department. He was my teacher of history and political science for an additional two years. And when I hit my senior year and didn’t get to hear his lectures or benefit from his insight anymore, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to blaze through college, get my Ph.D, and become a history professor. I wanted to be like him.
Of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way. I do remember running into Mr. Bramlett when I visited a high school function with my sister during my freshman year of college and I told him that I wanted to teach history. He seemed astonished. “Good God, why?” And I realized that while our relationship had been profound and impactful on me, for him it was literally just going to work everyday. It wasn’t that I was special or important, we all were. He was just damn good at his job.
Today I’m remembering Jeff Bramlett, who was many things to many people. A father, husband, coach, friend. To me he was my teacher, and the most important lessons for me fell outside the margins of any book. I’m sorry to learn that he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones, but his memory and legacy will carry on through all of us he helped, taught, shaped, and forever changed.
He was one for the history books.