Making History

By Lucy Jackson

It’s a lazy Friday afternoon and history teachers Larry Klein, Ken Neisser and Dave Waterhouse chat in the third floor Seaver history office discussing the potential cell phone ban, peanut M&Ms and the merits of the newly-designed caffeine-free Diet Coke can. As juniors trickle in to talk term papers with Neisser and Waterhouse tries to finish his grading before the weekend, the three joke around, ever apologetic for the lack of liveliness in the office (“Normally we have a wild party but we knew you were going to be here,” Waterhouse jokingly tells a reporter.)

At one point early in the period, history teacher Dror Yaron walks briskly through the office to his desk at the opposite end, opening Neisser’s M&M drawer and snagging some peanut ones on his way. While the teachers refer to it as the “secret stash,” Neisser, who has left it unguarded during his brief coffee run, seems to be well aware of the department antics. Waterhouse and Klein follow Yaron’s lead, jumping up to take a handful too.

“I personally never open the drawer, but as soon as somebody else opens it, then it’s fair game,” Waterhouse says. “If I started getting in the habit of opening it, it would be gone a lot more quickly and I would weigh a lot more than I do.”

Neisser returns, and the office returns to business as usual when Waterhouse brings up a historical reference about Watergate.

It’s this mix of business and pleasure that seems to propel the office dynamic. During the period, Neisser earnestly counsels a junior on the importance learning about history, while two desks over, Klein tells a sophomore girl to knock loudly and interrupt Eric Zwemer’s class to retrieve the backpack she left in there. He leads her on for about 30 seconds before she catches on and decides to just wait until the class gets out.

“We don’t tease each other or play tricks on each other — we just tease the students,” Waterhouse joked. “It’s Mr. Klein’s specialty.”

All jokes aside, (and there are plenty dispersed throughout the period) the teachers get serious about some things. Waterhouse retires to the secluded back room usually reserved for students taking makeup tests to grade exams himself, and Klein debates pros and cons of a potential ban on student cell phone use during the day.

“I go back there not because the department distracts me, but because to avoid grading papers, I distract them,” Waterhouse said. “So the only way of getting anything done is to isolate myself.”

And when the period ends 15 minutes later as school gets out and teachers and last minute students file in, it’s easy to see how the office could provide a hectic work environment. Teacher Nini Halkett walks into two waiting students, and Klein immediately strikes up conversation with Department Head Katherine Holmes-Chuba when she returns from her art history class.

“Oh, you have Ms. Holmes-Chuba now,” he says. “This is going to get exciting.”

As the office fills with lively conversation and playful taunting between teachers, it becomes clear that the History Department is built on just that: history. Among the teachers sitting in the office, many of them have been working at the school (and Harvard and Westlake,) for more than 20 years. Francine Werner tops the list with 32 years of experience, followed by Waterhouse and Holmes-Chuba, who have worked here for 30 and 24 years, respectively.

The bonds between some of the teachers stretch back further than Harvard-Westlake itself. As a result, the department has several stories and traditions, some of which, like Holmes-Chuba’s carpool with Zwemer, have changed or fallen by the wayside over the years.

“We did [carpool], until she ditched me,” he said. “She moved to Mount Chuba.” Mount Chuba, Zwemer’s affectionate moniker for Holmes-Chuba’s new house, is built on a hill, with 54 steps leading up to it and an elevator.

“And a fleet of footmen,” Zwemer adds for good measure. “Yeah, when she moved to the mansion I was kicked to the curb.”

Other traditions, however, remain alive and well, like the year-end department party every year that teachers’ entire families attend. The party works particularly well for the kids, given that Halkett, Holmes-Chuba, Waterhouse and history teacher Drew Maddock all have children at the Upper School, and although Werner’s children have already cycled through the school, her daughter still bakes treats occasionally for the department, Klein said.

All the history makes for some memorable moments, as well, which becomes clear when Holmes-Chuba and Werner recount the departure of an old colleague.

“Phil [Sweeney] told us he was leaving for Oklahoma, so we all went to see ‘Twister’ in theaters to try to deter him,” Werner said. At his farewell party, the department dressed up in Southern attire to send him off, she added.

Despite the memory-packed past, the teachers often talk current topics instead, debating hot button issues or new stances taken on historical issues.

“There’s somebody who says, what about the whatever, and then Dr. Waterhouse Googles, I Wikipedia and Mr. Maddock just knows,” Klein said.

“We’re not afraid to argue,” Neisser added later. “It’s great when someone throws a hot topic out there — you’ve got a lot of opinionated people.”

And while there’s a fair amount of debate among what Klein described as a liberal-dominated environment, the “new guy” Neisser says there’s a lot of cooperation as well.

“The dynamic in here is interesting, friendly, helpful — what’s great is that everyone here is respectful of past experience,” he said. “It’s the most stimulating environment I’ve ever worked in. If someone says ‘I’ve got a class, can you take it?’ people do it, no question.”

And, true to form, Waterhouse butts in with a joke.

“You know why?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s because we go in to someone else’s class and teach them all the wrong stuff.”

To which Neisser makes a witty retort, and the office banter starts up again.