Dope Thoughts with Dean Eliason

by Aidan Stoddart

The other week in class, we didn’t have much to do. AP Exams were over, the SOL was behind us, and there was still a large chunk of time left before our final presentations. So, naturally, to assuage our boredom, Mr. Eliason picked up one of his three classroom guitars (not counting the fourth, a broken guitar sitting on a high windowsill) and proceeded to serenade the class, one kid at a time, singing each student their respective AP English SOL score. Thankfully, we all passed, so the experience was amusing rather than totally embarrassing.

That’s the Dean Eliason experience for you. I can’t think of an AP English class this year that I didn’t leave smiling and chuckling. But make no mistake; Mr. Eliason’s propensity to encourage goofiness has never stopped him from encouraging deep and genuine thought. Some of the most insightful discussions I’ve ever had took place in his class this year.

Eliason has always pushed us to embrace controversial topics, to step outside of our intellectual comfort zones to speak candidly about literature, politics, sexuality, religion, spirituality, history, and so much more. And Eliason has always been there to pepper our discussions with his own commentary and delightfully wry humor to keep the fire burning. He also inspires all of us because he listens intently throughout class discussions; he truly cares about and is excited to hear everything that his students have to say.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned the most through my teaching career is how to listen,” says Mr. Eliason. “I’ve become a much better listener, and I enjoy listening. And I don’t know that a lot of people get pleasure out of listening– I mean, they think about that in music– to people. It’s like music. If you don’t listen to it carefully, you get the basic beat, but you miss the nuances, and if you miss those, you miss the personality, and you don’t uncover what the person really is.”

I’ve always really appreciated Eliason’s (usually peculiar) thoughts, and I’ve always wanted to hear more of them, so last week I sat down with him to have a one-on-one discussion. The following interview is the result. We talked about all sorts of things, from Eliason’s career origins to his experience as a parent to his favorite kind of sandwich and beyond, and all in all I think it’s a pretty cool conversation.

A: Mr. Eliason, thank you for talking with me today.

E: Aidan, it’s such a pleasure.

A: I know it’s a Monday. I know that you’re tired, probably.

E: It was a long weekend, a good weekend.

A: Oh, that’s good.

E: But good means long.

A: And long is mixed?

E: Long is tiring… very busy.

A: I was curious about your background in general. How did you end up becoming a teacher? What led you to that career choice?

E: To the calling?

A: To the calling. To the vocation, I suppose (laughs).

E: You know, a lot of people are called for a lot of different reasons, and I’ve always been a go-with-the-flow kinda person. I always wanted some sort of word to come down and be like “Dean, do this!” or “Dean, do that!” or “You’d be perfect for this,” and the problem was, there are just so many great things to do in this life, and so many things I wanted to do. And, none of them really revolved around work, they just revolved around experience. So, when I got to college, it just so happened that my advisor was the head of the ed-department. And when it came time for me to declare he was like, “Why don’t you go into teaching?” and I was like, “Well, alright, that sounds pretty good.” And he’s like, “Pick a subject,” and it’s like, well, I was always really strong in math (laughs).

A: Really?

E: Yeah. But I was like, “I don’t want to teach math. Only people like Hickey can teach math. And I definitely don’t want to end up like him.”

A: (Laughs)

E: So, I was like, “Well, where can I be most creative and thoughtful and learn the most?” and that would be in the subject that I was probably not the strongest in, and that would be English and Literature. And those people’s stories, and those are experiences, and those are the things I could learn from and gain from. So, that kinda worked out, and I got to be with people, and people are a trip every day, you know? They’re always bringing new things… it allows you to be thoughtful all the time, and I like that, and I like the lack of routine. I never do the same thing year to year. Yeah, I teach some of the same books, but I get new things out of them.

A: Coming to teaching “English,” which I don’t think is really an accurate name-

E: I agree. I don’t like “Language Arts” either.

A: Did you read a lot as a kid?

E: No… yeah, I hate to say it but I’m telling the truth. I have to really discipline myself to read. I’m out and about, and on the weekends, I just go outside. I just work on things. I play things. I’m not sedentary. I’m a movement person, so I listen to books on tape every day. I love that engagement. I’ve just never been able to sit for very long. And I’m sure if they gave a diagnosis back in my day, they would have tried to shoot me up with all sorts of ritalin-type things, you know?

A: You mentioned how inspired you feel by working with people. My mom is a third grade teacher, so she has a very different experience, but she likes to talk about her work life, and she has iterated to me that cliche, “the kids teach you way more than you teach them by the end of the year.” I was wondering if you found that to be true for yourself and your job? Do you feel like you learn a lot from your students?

E: I mean, I think I’m an amalgamation of everything that’s ever been put in front of me. All of the experiences include the interactions that I have with you guys. And, I think you know from the way I kinda do things, I pose questions, primarily.

A: It’s very Socratic.

E: Yeah. I don’t pretend, and I don’t want you guys to think I pretend, to have all the answers, because you guys have to come up with your own answers to the issues, to the questions that are out there. So, I do learn from you all, and I think one of the things I’ve learned the most through my teaching career is how to listen. I’ve become a much better listener, and I enjoy listening. And I don’t know that a lot of people get pleasure out of listening– I mean, they think about that in music– to people. It’s like music. If you don’t listen to it carefully, you get the basic beat, but you miss the nuances, and if you miss those, you miss the personality, and you don’t uncover what the person really is. If I ask you certain questions or if I push you in certain ways, I get real Aidan. And if you know I’m really listening, you’ll try to give me real Aidan, and even Aidan that you’ll have to reconsider. And I’ve seen you do that, have to try to think about how to best explain what’s going on in your head, and I have to sit there and listen to it. And I want to hear it. So, yeah, your mom is right (laughs).

A: We read some pretty dope books in this class. Do you have a favorite that you taught this year? Is there one that really speaks to you or resonates with you?

E: I’ve always been a Kesey fan [our class read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey]. And that started in College. I love his lifestyle. He’s very much an active guy as well, you know? He’s a farmer, and his experiences led him to writing Cuckoo’s Nest. So he wasn’t just an author who was like, “Okay, this issue or that and I’m gonna go research it,” he would just be out and about, and he’d see this situation, and he’d be like “Yeah, I’m gonna go and write about that.” I love the way Chief [the main character] narrates that; I think his narration is so much about listening, which is kinda what we were talking about before- the things he can pick up because he is very aware and sensitive to what’s going on. Very curious- they’re all the qualities and characteristics that I want [for] you guys… there’s action, and there’s thoughtfulness, and they embody a lot of what I try- what I hope that you guys go away with.

A: I remember one day, instead of watching the Monticello Announcements, we watched your son do announcements at his middle school. He goes to Henley?

E: Yeah, right.

A: So, you became a teacher before you became a parent, is that correct?

E: Yeah, oh man, yeah, it took me a long time to become a parent (laughs).

A: (laughs)

E: Yeah, I didn’t get married until I was thirty-seven.

A: Did being a parent have an effect on the way you taught afterward?

E: Definitely the most profound impact on my teaching. First, when you first have a kid, it’s like two to three years of pure blur. You don’t know if it’s day or night, it’s a fascinating journey into survival. Both my wife and I were working full time- I was coaching, as well. So, our first one was really interesting- Jack- and then, as he started to develop personality, and you see all the issues and the care and concern you have over his well-being and his development, and it just makes you a lot more- it made me a lot more compassionate. Whereas I think before I was much more coach, sort of, outcome, “you can do this,” now I was a bit more nurturing and a little estrogen leaked in there. And I think that happens when you’re a parent. And sometimes I don’t like it, because I think maybe I do a disservice because I’m not quite as tough as I should be. But then I think, throughout my life, you know, kindness is one of the most important qualities we can possess, and I think if I can be kind and compassionate, if I screw you up a little bit because of that, that’s alright.

A: And now, the meaningful questions.

E: Yeah! (laughs)

A: Are you a sandwich man or a wrap man? Or neither?

E: No, man, I’m a cheesesteak guy. Oh yeah. With everything.

A: With all the fix-ins?

E: Oh yeah, extra grilled onions. Cheesesteak sub. Throw in lettuce, tomato, everything. Definitely sandwich. Hoagie.

A: So, would you rather go to a fancy restaurant or have a cookout?

E: Oh, barbecue. Outside. Oh yeah. Taking your time. Watching the sunset. Feeling the breeze. Listening to good music. Absolutely.

A: And speaking of music, I guess the last big question I have for you-

E: I love the meaningful questions.

A: I know that you really like music; you have your guitars in your class and your little toy drums-

E: (laughs)

A: If you could just drop everything– not that you dislike teaching– and hang out with an artist on tour, alive or not, active or retired, what artist would you choose and why?

E: Gosh darn… that’s gonna take some thought. So, you know I’m a Jimi Hendrix fan. I would love to just hang with him for, like, two days, and just see the behind-the-scenes, the warm-up, the pre- and post-show mentality, just watch that creative genius go through his fingertips and into the amp, and hear all the little sounds that I imagine, that I try to hear, when I listen to the recordings or watch the videos. So, I would have to say Jimi would be right up there, top of my list.

A: Well, thank you so much for your time.

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