when students don’t read the books

Steven Hess

My guest writer today is Steven Hess. Born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1938, Steven spent his childhood years under Nazi occupation. He and his family, including his parents and twin sister, lived in both the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps during 1942-1945. The family immigrated to the United States on January 1, 1947.

A graduate of Columbia College, Steven majored in American History, served with the U.S. Navy for four years (1960-1964) and, after he completed his service, he worked at The New York Times. He eventually bought a small photographic equipment business and grew it into an internationally admired company with over 100 employees.

Steve is a bit of a rabble-rouser. He is a smarty-pants who speaks his mind. I rather love this about him. Let’s be clear; Steve is not a blogger. But over the last year, I learned that Steve writes really well, so I knew I had to get a piece of that action.

Here is his teacher memory.

• • •

It was more than half a century ago.

I was a junior classman at Columbia. How I ever got in with my modest credentials is another story, but I was indeed an Ivy League student. I was also lazy. Today I would be diagnosed as depressed or maybe ADHD, but in the fifties “lazy” pretty much covered it.

I entered Columbia as an engineering student from the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School but an “F” in freshman calculus suggested a career change. I inventoried my few talents and it came down to a knack for writing.  A switch to a history major seemed a reasonable and safe course of action.

One semester I signed up for Professor Fritz Stern’s European History class.  I needed the class. I was clueless to the fact that Fritz Stern was a preeminent historian with a truly major reputation. There was no Google. How would one know such things?

I slogged along, attending class, listening to lectures but pretty much ignoring the required readings because; well, because I was lazy. And so the semester passed and it was finals time and the thin, stapled, dreaded “blue books” in which you scribbled the answers.  As I said, I wrote well. If not restricted by the need for facts I could often b.s. my way through.  It was a week or so later that papers had been graded. I accepted the marked blue with the usual trepidation of a deficient student and opened it.  There, to my great relief was a “B” and under it the following comment, in red:

Logical exposition. Good conclusions, but you would have done so much better had you read the books.

Relief, tempered by acute embarrassment…but still, mostly relief.

Book by Fritz Stern

Years passed. Many years. I was in my fifties and quite successful in a field that required neither calculus nor an appreciation for historical nuances. But I had also become an avid reader and, as a survivor, a serious scholar of the Holocaust. And so I happened upon Fritz Stern’s magisterial Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History.  I couldn’t put it down.  I underlined and highlighted my way through endless revelations.  And, “fuck!”, I thought. I had been in his class and wasted all of it.

But now there was email and the beginning of search engines and I tracked him down. Thank God, he was still alive and kicking.  I got his address and wrote and told him how much I loved his works and especially Dreams and Delusions. Big fan!

I was too sheepish to mention the blue book, but merely wrote that I had taken his course.

Some days later I received a response:

Mr. Hess:

Delighted to hear you finally read the book.


What class do you wish you could take again — now that you are an adult — because you know you’d appreciate it so much more?

Last week: “A Different Kind of Punishment”

 • • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored or #TWITS Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction.

Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

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