Longtime English teacher Phil Hickey never expected to spend four decades at Graland.
“Oh, God no. I said I was going to spend no more than two years,” Hickey recalls. “I never had good math skills.”
Hickey arrived in Denver in 1976, after teaching at a boarding school for orphans in Philadelphia.
At first, he stubbornly kept a clock in his classroom set to East Coast time.
The two-hour time difference wasn’t his only adjustment.
Hickey told Head of Upper School, Tuck Ganzenmuller, he was startled to see Graland girls pulling on uniform kilts and dropping their blue jeans in the school hallway.
“I went to an all-boys’ school for 12 years,” Hickey says. “I went to an all-male college for four years. By the way, Tuck just told me, ‘Shut the door, Phil.’”
Hickey’s arrival also required an adjustment from some Graland parents.
“I was deemed rather wacko,” he recalls. “I was the talk of the cocktail party circuit.”
But headmaster Mike Teitelman knew what he was looking for when he hired Hickey: somebody who could make students laugh.
“He didn’t want a jock,” Hickey says. “I’m as athletic as a corpse. Throw a ball at me and see what happens.”
A self-described “rare bird,” Hickey finally began to feel comfortable in his new nest after a couple of years, when he was assigned to team teach two classes with veteran English teacher Ruth Gorham. The idea of the pairing was that Hickey would profit from Gorham’s experience, while she would benefit from his youthful energy. It proved to be a winning combination.
“It became easier. And I felt it was OK to be myself because, frankly, I was not willing to change,” Hickey says. “I think Graland became accustomed to me.”
Like generations of Graland students, I learned verb-subject agreement from Mr. Hickey. And I think of him fondly whenever I remind a colleague that “each” is singular. Over time, he also branched into teaching literature.
“I enjoyed that even more than teaching grammar,” he says.
“Every year had its own share of successes and what I’m going to call perceived failures. But teaching English was a great run as far as I was concerned. And my favorite grade is still seventh grade. I just loved it.”
Hickey says seventh-graders are a happy medium between immature elementary school kids and their jaded older brothers and sisters. They’re also just on the cusp of tackling more sophisticated literature.
“Greek mythology is child’s play when you teach it to kids,” Hickey says. “Or you read Johnny Tremain or The Yearling. That’s children’s literature. To Kill a Mockingbird was adult literature, even if the kids weren’t ready for it.”
Hickey says he thoroughly enjoyed teaching Harper Lee’s classic, along with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a book he’d discovered in high school when his own English teacher recommended it.
“I went downtown, bought a paperback copy at Charles Scribner’s, and I think by the time I got off the subway at 241st Street in the North Bronx, I had finished the book,” he says.
Hickey re-reads Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird every year and keeps five copies of the latter on his shelf at home, along with a black and white still of Gregory Peck from the movie version. He recalls seeing a stage play of Mockingbird in Denver with some former students. They told him afterwards he’d been muttering throughout the performance at one of the actors, “You’re not Atticus Finch.”
Eventually, Hickey expects to see the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Mockingbird that’s selling-out on Broadway, but that will have to wait. He had a chance at matinee tickets in May, but it’s the weekend of the Graland alumni reunion, so Hickey will be in Denver, where it’s still two hours earlier and four decades go by fast.