On Pete Pew

There are two main reasons why I’ve struggled in the last two months to put down in words my feelings about the all-too-soon passing of Pete Pew.  The first, and least important, is that most platitudinous of excuses: I’ve been busy.  Which is true, I guess.  It’s hard to force yourself to really take time to reflect on something as momentous a human life when you’re caught up in school and projects and relationships and all three seem alternately to soar and crash around you.  But I was busy in high school, too — Mr. Pew was a large reason for that — and I’ll be busy for the rest of my life, hopefully.  So it’s time I learn to take some time to think about what matters.

What matters are people like Mr. Pew.

Which brings me to the second reason I’ve struggled: I had no idea what to say.  How do I personally eulogize Pete Pew?  What did he do for me that was so unique?  Why does it feel — jokes about his height aside — like the world has lost a titan?

Hart High has definitively lost a titan.  I have lost a phenomenal teacher.  But I think the answer I’ve been looking for is that it feels like there’s such a void for exactly the same reason I don’t know how to make this a personal recollection.  Yes, Pete Pew did amazing things for me.  He taught me U.S. history and government, sure, but he taught me how to be a voter, a citizen, a human being.  He wrote one of my recommendation letters, helped get me into Stanford.  He challenged me to be a better student, a better learner, a better person.  Every day.

And he did the same thing for everyone else.

It’s staggering to me, when I think about it, how many lives Mr. Pew directly influenced.  Five classes a day, thirty students a class, twenty-six years of teaching — thousands of students who owe their understanding of how the country works to one man.  The epitaph on the building at Hart that now fittingly bears his name says that he believed the students he taught never let him down.  Well, that’s only because he never let us down.  Not one.  Not ever.

There is, I suppose, a third reason why it’s been hard for me to formulate my thoughts about Mr. Pew: I’ve been feeling guilty.  Guilty that I didn’t come back to visit Hart High more often to see him.  It’s the same guilt I have about not calling my grandmother enough, or not driving out to see my grandfather more — knowing how important a person is to you, and knowing you didn’t do enough to tell them that while you had the chance.  In the words of Pete Pew, just prove it, baby.  I don’t know if I ever did — for Pew, for my grandparents, for anyone.  I don’t know if I ever could.

The guilt is compounded, in a way, by things I keep learning only postmortem.  (My grandfather went on a date with a different Doris Schiffmann before meeting my grandmother, Doris Schiffmann?  Mr. Pew, my polo-shirt-wearing, six-foot-six high school history teacher was an accomplished Hawaiian slack-key guitarist?)  It’s especially the case with Mr. Pew.  I knew Pete Pew for really an hour a day, five days a week, for two years, excluding summers.  In that short time, his diligence, his passion, his love of teaching had a profound effect on me.  But there’s a whole life outside of that, and I can’t begin to imagine the effect he had on colleagues, friends, family.

I especially can’t begin to imagine a Hart High education without him.  That generations of students will pass through the brick buildings of Hart without hearing impassioned lectures on tariffs or presidents or John C. Calhoun, without puzzling over Pew’s political views, without looking up to Mr. Pew (literally, I mean, but I guess also figuratively) — it’s unthinkable.  This is the crux of it all, I think: Mr. Pew gave so much to so many at Hart, had so much of an effect on everyone, and now that tradition has ended.  The end, as they say, of an era.  We’re left with a plaque, a building, and memories to link the two.

Pete Pew was arguably the best teacher, pure and simple, that I’ve ever known.  I mean that in his literal ability to educate — and his classes’ test scores attest — but also in the commitment he showed to his profession.  He’s one of half a dozen teachers I’ve had, tops, at any level, who went so far beyond the extra mile for their students there’s no idiom to describe it.

Even now, then, Pew has taught me one more lesson.  People are always telling me, at this whole end-of-grad-school point of my life, to go find something I love doing.  But it’s not enough to do what you love.  You have to prove you love it — and that takes some serious commitment.  Just prove it, baby.

I can only promise that I’ll try.  The confluence of ability, passion, and position the likes of which was realized in Pete Pew is exceedingly rare.  But wherever I end up, whatever I’m doing, at least I’ll know my way around my pocket constitution.

For that, for everything, I’ll say once more: thank you, Mr. Pew.  Thank you.



  1. Seth:
    I’m Pete Pew’s wife, Debra. I just wanted to thank you for writing such a lovely tribute to my husband. I distinctly remember Pete speaking of you as one of the brightest students he’d ever had and that you’d been accepted to Stanford…one of very few from Hart. Although you did not get the opportunity to thank him personally for his contribution to your success, I know he would be very proud of all you have accomplished. Your kind and heartfelt words meant a lot to me. Thank you and God Bless you.
    Debra Pew

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