Back to class

By Maddy Baxter and Gabrielle Franchina

In Upper School English teacher Isaac Laskin’s ’98 sophomore year, performing arts teacher Ted Walch cast him as Big Julie, a husky character, in “Guys and Dolls.” He had a growth spurt late, so he was very short as a senior, Walch said. In an attempt to make the character work, Walch used basketball players Jason Collins ’97, who was 7 feet tall, and Jarron Collins ’97, who was 6 feet 11 inches tall, to play Laskin’s bodyguards.

“He was brilliant. It was really kind of wonderful,” Walch said.

Nowadays, Laskin walks into Rugby Hall in a different role each morning. On his way in, he passes Rugby Auditorium and the stage where he starred as Big Julie and enters the same classrooms he sat in every day for three years, where he now teaches sophomores and juniors.

Laskin is just one of many faculty members who attended Harvard-Westlake as a student before returning to teach among familiar faces. Former teacher-student relationships have transformed into friendships and professional relationships.

When Katie Lowry ’99 watches her students dance around the Chalmers studio, she knows exactly what it feels like to be in their shoes.

“It feels a bit like I’m being let behind the curtain,” Lowry said. “A lot feels the same, but there are some things that make the school feel very different.”

Upper school English teacher Adam Howard ’93 said the transition was simple.

“It’s not too weird to be colleagues and now friends with some of my former teachers,” Howard said. “Ted Walch and I have been buddies for many years, and if anything, I feel that we’re closer through our multi-stage experiences with each other.”

Walch and Howard first became friends when Howard tried out for the musical “Hair,” and Walch did not call Howard back after his first audition. Howard refused to give up and later approached Walch, asking him for one more chance to show him what he had worked on. He wound up with one of the leading roles.

“If you’ve had kids in theater, you get to know them in a different way,” Walch said. “I knew them also as friends. I’m not surprised at all at their success as teachers.”

Not a year has gone by without Walch seeing Howard or Laskin several times, Walch said.

Upper school science teacher Yanni Vourgourakis ’90 also has co-workers who were once his teachers.

“As I recall John Feulner was my physics teacher, Nini Halkett and Katherine Holmes-Chuba taught me history, or at least tried,” Vourgourakis said. “I wasn’t the best, but at least I remember the ins and outs of Romanesque architecture. Vanna Cairns was my college counselor, and Coach Greg Hilliard was my basketball coach.”

Upper School Dean Vanna Cairns has worked at Harvard-Westlake for 27 years. At one point, she had a past student serving as a faculty member in every department. Howard, Vourgourakis, Plant Manager Dave Mintz ’87 and Middle School mathematics teacher Dan Reeves ’94 all had Cairns as a teacher or adviser. Upon each student’s return, Cairns shows him or her the recommendation she wrote for him or her when they were applying to college.

“I think it’s more awkward for them than for me, but not for long,” Cairns said.

“Over the years, no one has sat in my office and said, ‘I want to be a high school science teacher,’ so it is fun when they come back and realize how wonderful the job really is — the schedule, the kids. It’s fun that they come to the realization,” Cairns said.

Vourgourakis says he first interviewed at the school because he needed a job after spending two years traveling after grad school but has been happy teaching at Harvard-Westlake ever since.

“It feels old and less fun [than being a student] but I like not having homework,” said Vourgourakis.

Upper school science teacher Hilary Ethe ’00 said it is a privilege to learn, as a teacher, from people who have been teaching for many years.

“It must be weird for them in a way because they remember me as a kid,” Ethe said.

Lowry was also excited to work with her old teachers. She said when she was a student, she was extremely influenced by upper school dance teacher Cyndy Winter and the dance program itself.

“When the opportunity came to teach along with Cyndy, I jumped at it,” Lowry said. “Now that I’m teaching both dance and yoga, I’m able to share two of my greatest passions with bright and talented young students.”

Howard recalls some vivid traditions from his time at Harvard School that have been lost since the merger with Westlake. He said the school has evolved into a very different place than he remembers.

“When the school was all boys, we had seventh through 12th graders on one campus,” Howard said. “Seventh graders weren’t allowed, unofficially, to take the tower to class. If a senior saw you, he’d make you turn around or pick you up and carry you to the bottom of the staircase. It was all about paying our dues, like first-year students at Hogwarts.”

Similarly, Ethe still looks back fondly on many of her unique high school experiences, including some embarrassing ones.

“One of the funniest memories I have is of my 10th grade Spanish teacher trying to make me laugh after I had my wisdom teeth removed,” Ethe said. “I looked ridiculous with swollen chipmunk cheeks, and he tried to crack me up all week so I wouldn’t feel so embarrassed.”

Lowry still keeps in touch with many classmates, recalling her favorite memories and stories with them.

“I’m still very close to many of my friends from Harvard-Westlake, so we reminisce about our high school days often,” Lowry said. “I have great memories from canoeing down the Colorado river to dancing at the prom.”

However, Vourgourakis said that when he attended his 20-year reunion, he could not remember many names, but could still recite the opening to the Canterbury tales in Old English.

“Harvard-Westlake is a great place to learn and a great place to work,” Howard said. “If there’s an opening, who wouldn’t want to come back here?”