There are teachers, and then there are teachers.
You know what I mean. For some, teaching is a job, and their main interest is survival. For others it is a passion, and their main interest is encouraging talent and building character. The former teacher has little impact and is rarely remembered longer than the few bits of information a student receives in class. The latter teacher, however, changes lives and is never forgotten.One such teacher - an unforgettable life-changer - is Kim R. Burningham, or "Mr. B" as high schoolers have known him for most of the 28 years he has taught speech, debate and drama at Bountiful High School.
Burningham, 51, is retiring this year, a fact that will be ceremoniously noted this weekend at the Kim R. Burningham Gold Watch Gala (Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Bountiful High). Organized and executed by a committee of former students spanning the three decades of Mr. B's tenure, the gala is intended as a way of celebrating the legacy of learning this teacher leaves behind.
Part of that legacy has to do with the high level of excellence he has been able to coax out of his speech and drama students as more trophies and plaques than the Bountiful High trophy cases can accommodate clearly attest. But it has even more to do with the love and loyalty felt years later by his charges, many of whom credit Mr. B for molding them into the people they have eventually become.
"Mr. B was not just someone who presided over the transfer of data from chalkboard or textbook to his students' intellects," said one of the gala's organizers, David Irvine of the Class of 1961. "He has been a singular energizing force in young peoples' lives that unlocked talent they never knew they had. Hundreds of gifted students found out who they really were in his classes, and they persevered to do their very best because no other standard was acceptable."
Reading through dozens of written tributes from former students that have been compiled as part of the gala festivities, three aspects of Burningham's teaching persona seem to emerge as having had the most long-term impact on the young people who took his classes.
The first is discipline. "My first recollections of Mr. B were of sheer terror and speechless respect," wrote Mari-Lynn Johnston Wilson ('72), now of Minneapolis. "Kim demanded discipline and perfection, and that can make a teenage student a bit nervous."
Of course, maybe that saber he used to carry around threateningly during the first days of the school year had something to do with it, too.
Which is not to say that Mr. B physically intimidated his students; with a physique and bearing more akin to Clark Kent than Superman, he was never what you would call an imposing physical specimen. And while more than a few students learned first-hand about the Burningham temper, the only injuries sustained consisted of some battered pride and a little bruised ego.
Still he was able to exact more than his share of discipline from students -discipline born of respect and awe. Claudia Gramoll Snyder ('73) remembers sitting in her first debate class and thinking, "I'll never be able to do what he expects." But, she said, "I soon learned that (his) enthusiasm and confidence were contagious and I even managed to begin enjoying myself."
Or, as Janice L. Frost ('71) put it, "I got over being frightened, but I am still in awe."
The second aspect of the Burningham Experience that appeared frequently in the alumni remembrances was the feeling that Mr. B pushed them to measure up to his high expectations. " `Impossible,' " wrote Catherine Clarke Robinson ('74), is "a word that Kim Burningham does not recognize. In my years of debate and drama . . . I would time and again act and speak beyond my abilities. Mr. B made me see for myself that higher and greater demands can be made on oneself and be achieved."
Becky Lawrence Nelson ('75) remembered her first speech in a sophomore speech class: "(I was) wiggling my ring around my finger, looking down at my feet and squirming as I (spoke). I will never forget the critique sheet that followed, nor the tears and anger as I threw it on my dresser. Then, after uncovering my pride, came the strong desire to become what I knew and he knew I could. . . . I didn't want to let him down, nor did I want to let myself down." Two years later, she was Bountiful High's Sterling Scholar in Speech and Drama.
Victoria Felman Schoenfeld ('69) said Mr. B was "encouraging and supportive while always pushing us toward excellence. Praise was hard to come by, but when it did it was meaningful, constructive and well-earned. . . . (He) demanded the best in everything - performance, decorum, preparation, vernacular and attitude. (He) made us aware of the possibilities of our futures and gave us the opportunity to push ourselves to our individual personal best."
Added Frost: "(He) demanded excellence from us and made us responsible for our own achievements. Less than the best was unacceptable even if we won; losing was acceptable if we had done our best."
As important as discipline and high expectations were, however, the most oft-cited recollection had to do with Burning-ham's deep capacity to care about his students. That lesson was taught early each school year, when Mr. B would arrive for the first day of school with all the names of all the students in all his classes memorized - even those whom he had never met before.
"(He) cared about us as individuals, not just students," said Frost.
"Mr. B . . . always made me feel so important," remembered Nelson. "(He) took an interest in me not only as (a) student, but as a person."
"(He) had the gift to make us not help us, but make us find ourselves," wrote Laurel Peterson Hall ('72).
"I remember the special pride (he) took in all of the students involved, not just the `stars,' " said Robyn Arnold ('68). "(He) taught me how important each individual is."
"(He) seemed to dissolve class distinctions," wrote Lisa Holbrook Cena ('75). "There were no rich or poor, cute or ugly, good or bad among us. We were all equal and we were all unique."
That equality extends to the present, where former students share equally in their continued respect and appreciation for Mr. B. Many of them will be in attendance at the gala Saturday, a vast assortment of ex-high school speech and theater students who are now teachers themselves, as well as a host of lawyers, doctors, politicians, homemakers and even a newspaper theater critic or two. As with Miss Jean Brodie, they are all his for life.
Now, if all of this is starting to sound a bit gushy a hymn to Kim, as it were please understand. The writer ('73) is hardly objective in the matter, because to him Mr. B was more than just a teacher.
He was a teacher.