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MR. BLAUVELT'S MOMENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On any other Friends School graduation evening, Gerritt Blauvelt would be picked up at his apartment by his colleague Karen Birdsong, the school librarian, at 6:12 p.m., in time to prepare for his role as head usher.

The English teacher would do what he has for the past 20 years: Ask three or four kids to arrive early and hand out programs, and make sure their stock is replenished. By the time the graduates file down the hill to take their seats on the school grounds, he would be standing between the table of diplomas and the microphone, his arms crossed, one knee slightly bent as it rests on the other, his eyes shielded by sunglasses and looking, as he always has, like a secret agent.

But this year, Mr. Blauvelt is retiring from the school where he has taught for 41 years, and the senior class has asked him to give the speech at tonight's graduation.

Mr. Blauvelt loves routine. Swapping his well-honed role as usher for that of commencement speaker has made him a wreck. But for Mr. Blauvelt, one of the great things about the Friends graduation is that it is always one hour, 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The speech is 10 minutes, no more. "Let's face it, they are not here for the speech. Am I going to give advice? Summarize my experience? Probably not," Mr. Blauvelt said.

Already, he has let Mrs. Birdsong know that he wants a fast getaway.

For several months, Mr. Blauvelt has been dismantling his classroom. He doesn't own a car but lately has hitched a ride home with fellow English teacher Mosie Kessler-Zacharias. He brings home 10 books a day, just enough to hold comfortably, and in this way, has moved out of his classroom with no one's help.

He awakens these days at 4:30 a.m., the time he once went to bed, back in his college-disc-jockey days in Philadelphia. By 5:50 a.m., he leaves his 10th-floor Charles Village apartment, briefcase in hand, and walks two miles to Friends School on North Charles Street, timing his arrival for 6:30 a.m. sharp.

The classroom is where freshmen get their first glimpse of Mr. Blauvelt. He offers it for their first writing exercise, a paragraph crafted according to his special code, USA: If you have Unity and Specificity, you'll have Authority.

Assuming a room reflects the person who controls it, he asks students: What does this room say about me?

They begin to collect details: the neatly stacked folders, the carefully placed briefcase with its taped handle - a gift from the school's stage crew, which he managed for 18 years - the hour-by-hour calendar.

Invariably, someone notices the movie ads on the bulletin board, and Mr. Blauvelt will ask, "Is there any order to this?"

He will reveal that the advertisements are arranged symmetrically on either side of the center. He will reveal a curve in the ad to the right of the center and a similar design in the ad on the left. Ads on either side of these share a color, red. The next set has the same subjects: The ad for Eight Women on one side matches the one for All the Real Girls on the other, and The Man Who Wasn't There balances the ad for A Beautiful Mind, about a math professor who wasn't there, and so on.

By then, invariably, the kids will say:

Oh, man.

They guess the theme of this paragraph, but their teacher sums it up: "Mr. Blauvelt is so organized he is almost psychotic."

Mr. Blauvelt sees two or three films a week. Movies and videos are something he brings into the classroom whenever he can, to complement a poem or short story or novel. He connects Joseph Conrad's Secret Sharer and an episode of Star Trek. Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and Costa-Gavras' film Missing, both stories of a father searching for a son. Great Expectations and, he hates to admit this, the scatological version of same by characters on the TV show South Park.

One day recently, when warm spring air and the buzz of lawn mowers filtered though the windows in his classroom, seniors took their seats around the U-shaped table to read and comment on the work they were studying.

"There are very rarely people who don't talk," says Samantha Swisher, who is going off to Swarthmore College to study biology.

Sometimes, when she is sitting outside class, she sees her teacher making a sweep of the hallway, trying to get students to turn in their papers before they are due, so he can grade them in his free hour.

Mr. Blauvelt is famous for returning them the same day.

"You could hand it in the morning, five or six pages, and get them back in the afternoon with very thoughtful comments," says Sarah Berkowitz, who graduated last year and is finishing her first year at Barnard College.

He does with his students what he did with English teacher Kessler-Zacharias in her first year teaching: See talents and bring them out.

She became to him what many students have become over the years: a friend. And friendship with Mr. Blauvelt is built on ritual. In Kessler-Zacharias' case, they have lunch the week before school starts at Jeannier's - he keeps the calendar and they trade the tab - drinks before the annual alumni party, and every two months, a movie at his house.

What amazes Kessler-Zacharias, 26, is that Mr. Blauvelt gets his students so excited about "the thing" (a piece of literature) that they forget about him. "The love of the thing, and he gets them to love the thing."

"One of the great things he does is bring in music. A song to complement a poem."

One of his regulars is Mick Jagger. Mr. Blauvelt always tells his students about an interview the Rolling Stones lead singer gave when the album Some Girls came out. "He was talking about "Beast of Burden," which is my favorite Stones song of all time," Mr. Blauvelt says. "He's like, 'I just love singing that song, the [and here Mr. Blauvelt sings it] pretee pretee pretee pretee pretee pretee girl.' And I said [to the students], 'He is talking like a poet there. He is interested in the sound and the feel of this. That's poetic language. It's the same thing as, "To be or not to be ... ' "

At 64, Mr. Blauvelt is comfortably in tune with kid culture.

Knowing what is hip is not the same as being hip, though.

If you leaf through old issues of Quaker, the Friends School yearbook, you will see Mr. Blauvelt looking much as he does today: tall, thin, lanky, in a suit, often iridescent, with a thin lapel, and a skinny black tie. The black glasses a la Woody Allen have been softened to match his aging hair. The Beatle boots have been traded in for Hush Puppies. But the suits he had made in the '60s and '70s and still wears are back in style, as are his skinny ties, bought three for a dollar eons ago at Tie City. "They don't make 'em like that anymore," he says.

He keeps 1970s furniture from his parents, too, in mint condition. Rarely does his 14-day meal plan change - lasagna on Monday, pork chops on Tuesday, and so on. So when a former college roommate drives him to the supermarket every six or eight weeks, he heads right to the frozen-food case for Stouffer's.

And every year, he teaches Charles Dickens' 19th-century novel Great Expectations. A few years ago, he fought an effort to remove it from the curriculum. When he rereads it every fall, as he has for 41 years, he always finds something new.

Former student David Frank remembers a "mix of anarchy and discipline" in Mr. Blauvelt's class, and tries to re-create it for his own students at the Roxbury Latin School in Boston.

"There is definitely a slight craziness under a veneer of respectability," says Frank.

Twelve days ago, students dedicated the yearbook to him for the fourth time.

The first time was 1967.

He was so hip, former students say, that while they listened to Top 40, he was tuned in to James Brown on WEBB, a black radio station. "BLAU-vee," they called him, the cool dude who came to dinner at their homes, listened to their problems, and mediated with parents. More than a few girls had crushes on him.

Looking back, Mr. Blauvelt sees the Saturdays from October to May that he spent on the stage crew with students as a reason he never married. But he got used to his way of life. There was the fall play, Christmas concert, dramatic play, spring musical, one set of scenes after the next.

He wasn't going to make the sets for them - he is not someone who works with his hands - but he was their support system.

"We never got into that stuff of taking bows at the end of the show," he says. "I said that wasn't professional. But I was able to create a sense that this was important, that no show could go on without the crew.

"And the great thing was that nobody knew [who did all the work]."

There was no conscious plan by Mr. Blauvelt to set up his life to give as much time as possible to students, though he concedes, in retrospect, it looks that way. His love of literature and teaching was more bred in the bone than the result of any epiphany. He is the son of a Quaker schoolmaster. But Mr. Blauvelt did not imagine that after he graduated from Haverford College, earned a master of teaching at Harvard, and arrived in Baltimore in his iridescent suit, boots and sunglasses, that he would still be at Friends all these years later.

Nor did students, some of whom teased him. Amused, he would say: "You don't ask a brain surgeon, 'Are you still doing brain surgery?' "

A New York filmmaker, Elizabeth Holder, class of 1988, came back, as many do, wanting to tell him how well they are doing. "It's just important to me to continue to have him in my life because he was so supportive of my thinking creatively," she says.

She can't imagine him outside the classroom. When Mr. Blauvelt told her, "You can call me Gary," she could only reply: "OK, Mr. Blauvelt."

Because of her, Mr. Blauvelt got to live out his childhood fantasy of being a movie star. He was an extra in the Tom Selleck movie Her Alibi, which Holder worked on in Baltimore. "You have to be watching very fast to see me," he says. "I am just walking by."

It's the perfect role, the part he fancies himself playing in life.

It's a Friday in the middle of May, and Mr. Blauvelt is alone in his classroom culling his files. He has decided to keep one copy of everything. Maybe he will teach again.

His apartment is full of music - 4,000 LPs and more than 5,000 CDs, cross-referenced on thousands of index cards filed in shoe boxes - and gifts from students. On his shelf, marking each September, a set of 40 yearbooks.

The decision to retire was gradual. His own back-to-school ritual has all but disappeared; since Jerry Lewis got sick and no longer stays up 21 1/2 hours to host his Labor Day telethon, Mr. Blauvelt doesn't stay up to watch it, either.

And just before Thanksgiving, he gave a speech that some students took to be his farewell.

For an hour he spoke, customary for the annual Friends lecture, and the laughter was frequent, the applause voluminous. His timing was precise, his humor droll. The talk was full of his favorites, old and new: Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Tennyson, Homer, Dickens, Lucille Clifton, Tess Gallagher. The familiar telephone-book number, where he mines the phone book for what it says about love - Romeo (47), Casanova (4) Huggs (14) - or demographics - Short (84) Tall (7), Stout (83).

If there is any immortality, he said, it's in our names.

"Why are some people remembered while thousands of others, equally important, having achieved much, are forgotten? "Ulysses, Sacker of Cities," has a better ring to it than "Irving, Sacker of Cities." But what Ulysses did, he said, is not as important as what Homer wrote about him.

"We recall most people not because of what they did, but because of the stories that have been made up about them."

With 10 minutes on stage at tonight's graduation, what is left to say?

No doubt Mr. Blauvelt will talk about how words and literature satisfy the deepest human needs.

No doubt, he will be slightly embarrassed by the attention and the applause.

And no doubt, he will be reluctant to take a bow.

But maybe, just this once, he should.

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