Tuesday, June 18, 2013

West Potomac's Paul Russell Retires

Picture of Paul Russell in 1970 something from Sygyzy Magazine
West Potomac's Creative Writing Magazine
Today, I attended my 9th West Potomac High School Gradation and had the pleasure of handing the Outstanding Faculty Award to my 11th Grade English/Creative Writing Teacher, Paul Russell, who retired today after teaching at Groveton High School and West Potomac High School for 44 years. 

He was voted this honor by the Class of 2013.

I don't remember all of my classes at West Potomac, but a few teachers really stick out.  Mr. Levy (AP US Government), Mr. Holder (Band - wrote about him here when he retired), and Mr. Russell.

Mr. Russell's class really sticks out in my head 25 years later. First, and least importantly, he was my sixth period teacher (only had six periods back then), and I was caught skipping his class with Fran Kim - we skipped to play golf, Greendale was closed for rain, we tried to sneak back in to avoid the unexcused absence and got caught by Vice Principal Ruby Jackson in the parking lot behind Springbank - and had to do in-house detention (the only time) in the room next door to Mr. Russell's class (which is a whole different story).  

Second and more seriously, we were given this writing project called "A Slice of Life" which was a hyper-factual personal narrative about a very narrow piece of time.  I still remember what I wrote about - and I'm not repeating it here.  Needless to say, there were very few content boundaries which was enabling in a weird way that normally doesn't happen in high school.

Third, we had a latin root exercise where we were told to teach the class a latin root including a presentation and come up with an original word, and it had to be a memorable presentation.  He was very clear about how MEMORABLE it had to be.....  I was assigned the root "phil" which is latin for "love" as in philosophy (love of wisdom), philanderer (love of men), philanthropist (love of mankind), etc.

I took "All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles, dubbed the word "phil" for "love" throughout the song and made the class sing the entire song with the classroom lights out (the classroom had no windows), while a device that projected colored clovers, diamonds, and hearts around the walls spun around. 

My Junior and Senior yearbook is littered with "Phil Surovell" comments from my classmates.  I also remember my invented word which was a combination of sophomoric inappropriate humor that only an 11th grade boy could think up. I never forgot a bunch of latin roots after that year, and I couldn't believe I got a B+....

I relate all this because it demonstrates his style.  He was beyond laid back.  Many high school students would probably describe him as "cool."  We got away with stuff in his class that you did not get away with anywhere else, but what it did was enabled your creativity.  There were no boundaries or rules on content - only that you actually be creative. 

The weird part is that as an unsophisticated, sixteen year-old, 11th grade English student, who had just gotten his driver's license (e.g. freedom), I felt like he was hands off, permissive, and enabling.  In an environment with parents, strict school behavior rules, schedules, and deadlines that sixteen year-olds love to probe, his class felt like educational anarchy.  It was kind like Dead Poet's Society in public school. 

He allowed us intellectual freedom that we had not yet been permitted to exercise in our world of memorizing and regurgitating facts and demonstrating your mastery of algebra and the rules of analytic geometry.  As a sixteen year-old, you didn't realize that he was busy molding your brain without your even knowing it by enabling your creativity. 

When I posted news about his retirement on Facebook a couple months ago, it prompted a flood of memories from my classmates and others whose lives he had impacted.
  • Mr. Russell is just retiring now? He was an incredible teacher (as were so many of our teachers). Hilarious story about you guys. I remember Mr. Russell constantly telling me he was going to give me a B because I was such a nerd and it would ruin my life. He also told me to stop saying that stuff in stories "reflected" other things. I never use the verb reflect without thinking of him.
  • Qupes in Dupes. The Five Big E's. Slice of Life. THAT was a great class and a great teacher! As we were discussing in another thread, regarding a particularly memorable Fred Morhart world civ lesson, it seems like that type of creativity in teaching would be discouraged these days, with the SOL emphasis. Am I wrong? How much leeway do our teachers have? I've always known we were lucky to have such brilliant teachers, but maybe I don't know just *how* lucky we have been to have had the type of inspiring lessons that are etched in our memories decades later. Say it isn't so.
  • He slipped me a tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye one day on my out of class; I think it was banned at the time.
  • Wow! I remember him at Groveton. Great guy!
  • Mr. Russell! Wow. One of my favorite teachers.
  • Wow 44 years! I find myself thinking of Mr Russell when I'm in a meeting with someone who talks on and on, wishing someone would yell Tangent Control!
  • I loved Mr. Russell!!
  • OMG I had Mr. Russell in 10th grade back when it was Groveton. My older sister also was his student. My two kids -- now graduated, walked the halls with him. He made me feel young and no doubt students like me made him feel old. What a career!
  • [Another WePo Teacher From the Class of '89-era] - Mr. Russell is a "great." Some students misinterpreted his casual style for a pass not to do the assigned work. Big mistake.
  • Very cool. I still get called Windex thanks to him & his nicknames
  • Mr. Russell-Mr. Morhart--Mr. Levy-- the triumvirate of WEPO greats.
  • [A Groveton '75 Graduate] - I had Mr. Russell for junior year of high school English, the fact that I still remember much of that class, and the book we read and studied, "Death be not Proud," and that I had never before seen a teacher who more appropriately resembled a member of the "Allman Brothers Band," and was awed by that, I think shows he was a pretty good teacher
The last comment was from a colleague of mine from the courthouse who has about 14 years on me.  When someone who took a class in 1974 still remembers her teacher, that's impressive, and it's clear that Paul Russell has altered the trajectory of thousands of kids between North and South Kings Highway and the Potomac River.

Most teachers retire after 25 years.  He loved teaching and was an educational cornerstone of the school.  Thousands of kids between North and South Kings Highway and the Potomac River were enabled as writers because of him. 

In his speech, he simply said he didn't like honors and he accepted the award for all of the other teachers out there on the floor who were teacher of the year to some graduating student in the Class of 2013.  Ridiculously modest and low key to the end. 

Teachers like Paul Russell don't come along very often and truly honor the profession. 


  1. What a great post, Scott, and what a creative lesson on the word "Phil." I like what you say about how permissive he was in some ways. He didn't sweat the small stuff. But he completely demanded your best work, which was so important. I remember him assigning us like 20 pages of reader response journals for books like The Scarlet Letter. We just had to write SOMETHING about the work. I still use this technique (sort of, with fewer pages) with my students. Love, love, love Mr. Russell.

  2. Loved the post, and especially the photo! I think I was in 4th period English, which is why I don't remember Phil! Mr. Russell was one of a kind - so grateful to him and so sorry to hear that the next class won't benefit from his teaching!

  3. Great post Scott. It was great teachers like Mr. Russell that inspired me to go into teaching. I have used his examples of how to turn what appears to students as boring and mundane into something funny and more importantly memorable. Thanks again Mr. Russell, Mr. Holder and Mr. Levy for giving us the life long learning opportunities. Although we may not have shown it then, the value of what you passed on to me is multiplied everyday with every lesson I give.

  4. I had Paul for Freshman English in the spring of 1973, he was one of the 'living legends' at Groveton for many years and one of the many eclectic faculty members that made GHS a unique and memorable experience. I am grateful for the dedication of all my teachers at Groveton and even 40 years later I have so many fond memories.

  5. Dear Scott, I just found out from a friend of a friend who taught with him that Mr. Russell passed away today. You article was so true in so many ways and he will be missed. I had him for AP English my Junior Year. I still sing the word "Cred" to George Michael's "Faith" every time. Sincerely, Missy Edwards, WePo Class of 1990

  6. Excellent article. I found this after I found out Paulie passed last night. He was a wonderful teacher and I am thankful for having known him. I posted a link here from the Groveton HS Alumni website: http://groveton.org/

  7. Wow, this article was awesome. Great memories of Mr. Russell and my AP English class/Creative Writing. Even greater memories of joking with him after school. It makes me sooo sad to hear of his passing. Yes, Mr Morhart, Mr. Levy, and Mr. RUSSELL. I would also add Ms. Cochran ' s Film Study class- most amazing elective ever taken.

  8. Sad to hear about his passing. I had him for 12th grade English, and I remember the Slice of Life project. He was such a funny, crazy, yet genuine teacher. He will be missed. Russ Jones, class of 1996.

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