By Johanna Varner ’02
Doug Wortham’s reputation preceded him – how could it not?
Even 25 years ago, he was legendary for being the hardest teacher in the Upper School. Before we started, everyone in freshman French had heard the stories from friends or siblings. Even our Middle School French teacher warned us that our lives would become much more...difficile. To say that we were terrified would be an understatement.
Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.—Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02
And most of those stories were true. I worked harder for Doug's classes than for any other teacher or professor since. Indeed, his French program is widely regarded as “one of the most challenging and scholarly" programs available at Rowland Hall, an institution generally renowned for being challenging and scholarly. But what those stories left out was the profound impact that his classes would have on us. In addition to actually learning French, an amazing accomplishment itself, we also learned to think deeply, to engage with difficult topics, to recover from failure, and to live authentically in a challenging and unpredictable world.
For the past 43 years, I imagine that all of Doug’s students (and probably also our parents and caregivers) have wondered how he motivated us to work so hard...and actually like it. My classmate Allyson Goldstein Hicks ’02 commented, “Mr. Wortham is that rare teacher who has the highest expectations but is somehow still everyone’s favorite.”
As an educator now myself, I have also often considered how he managed that feat, and writing this story provided me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences. I also polled my fellow class of 2002 alumni, and together, we pieced together some answers.
First, Doug always treated us with adult-like respect and expected the same in return. “Wortham always treated us not only like students, but also mini-adults, which we hardly were,” wrote Maribeth LeHoux ’02. He took the time to get to know each of us, respected our confidences, and earned our trust and respect in return. “Mr. Wortham had a unique way of seeing the teenage version of yourself, meeting you at that place, and subtly supporting each student to become the best version of themselves,” commented Nicole Pershing ’02. He trusted us with personal stories about his life experiences in the gay community, or that we would not get into trouble when given adult privileges travelling abroad. This was a rare experience for many of us, and it made a lasting impression.
In addition, Doug taught us to be prepared for anything—indeed, it was a requisite survival skill for his classes. Whatever we did, the instructions were clear, and we were evaluated fairly. But the day's activity could range from writing a philosophical essay or conjugating verbs until you could no longer hold a pencil, to translating song lyrics, reading a story aloud, or discussing death and religion. Perhaps the most unpredictable activity of all was compétition. In this activity, we had to literally run our answers to the front of the room. Because the first correct answer received the most points, nobody hesitated to throw elbows or even swan-dive across Doug’s desk with their submissions. (Nobody was seriously injured, but I am sure minor bruises were common). “I was always slightly terrified to go to class,” said Maribeth. “It was challenging in a way nothing else was. Even if you studied, how could you ever be prepared?”
Doug also set the bar high and had faith that we would rise to the challenge. I continued French in college, and none of the classes that I took at MIT or Harvard rivaled Doug’s in terms of challenge, rigor, or reward. Allyson, who majored in French, agreed. “Mr. Wortham’s classes were some of the most challenging, fun, and impactful classes I have ever taken,” she wrote. At age 16, we tackled the great classics of French existentialist literature. We unpacked all the layered metaphors of La Peste by Camus and Huis Clos by Sartre. We even had to memorize and perform an entire act of Ionesco’s play Rhinocéros. We weren’t always successful at first, but Doug always offered patient, graceful, compassionate, respectful, clear, and constructive feedback so that we could understand the assignment and his expectations. “Because of my experiences in his class, I knew after a stumble (literal or metaphorical) I could get back up and keep going,” wrote Nicole. “Those challenges brought us together with shared triumphs that forged friendships.”
Perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Doug's courses were deeply relevant to our lives, then and now. We did not just learn how to conjugate verbs, use the subjunctive tense, or memorize vocabulary. We also were tested on colorful slang expressions, pop lyrics, and current events. We traveled to use our language skills in Canada, France, and Belgium. And perhaps the most important thing about Doug’s classes was that we didn’t just learn French. We learned about politics and governments, religion and philosophy, ethics and morality. We learned how to live authentically. We learned how to respect the worldviews of others, and we developed the courage to speak up in the face of la mauvaise foi.
“Doug Wortham is the sort of teacher they depict in movies,” said Bryan Lence ’02. “He expected so much of his students. He taught about different world views, governmental structures, culture, and philosophy. He just happened to teach it all in French.” Vanessa Clayton ’02 added, “I’ve always thought that that class taught us more about life than anything.”
Of course, we also actually got really good at French. “By the time I graduated, I could travel abroad and speak the language, read the language, and feel comfortable,” wrote Bryan. “Twenty years later, I can still read and understand.” Most of us can still recite lyrics to the songs we memorized too. And the other lessons will last a lifetime. Nicole agreed: “My French may have gotten rusty in the last 20 years, but I use the life skills, compassion, and determination that I learned in Doug’s classes every day.”
We also relished passing on those scare stories to our siblings and their friends. Like Mike “Blanquette” Reynolds’ ’02 memories of “writing conjugations until our hands went numb, shaking it out, and then repeating the process for 45 more minutes.” Or Sarah Lappé’s ’02 recollection of “that stylo rouge [red pen] destroying my sentences after I handed my paper in last.” These stories may not be used anymore to heckle future generations of incoming freshmen about the challenges that lie ahead, but I am confident that Doug Wortham will remain a legend at Rowland Hall. My classmates and I all wish Doug the best for his well-earned retirement.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to celebrate our departing colleagues as we customarily would. We are planning an on-campus gathering on Saturday, August 28, to honor those who worked at Rowland Hall for 20 or more years and left the school in 2020 or 2021.