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Kindling a Fire: The Teacher Who Changed My Life in Two Questions

Kindling a Fire: The Teacher Who Changed My Life in Two Questions

“What are you reading?”

It was the first thing Merle Black, legendary Country Day teacher, would always ask me whenever I returned to campus after graduating. As a college student seeing him at a Country Day basketball game, Merle wanted to know what I was reading. Years later, as a parent of two young CCDS students, he greeted me the same way: “What are you reading?”

Not “How are you?” or “Is your family well?” or any other customary greeting. For Merle, how I was doing was inextricably linked to what I was reading.

The question came from a place of curiosity and care, as did most things from Merle – no one has ever loved his students more than Merle Black. But the question was also an implicit challenge: Are you still learning? Are you still curious about the world? Are you still growing as a thinker? 

In this way, it perfectly encapsulates Merle Black. In a warm and ingenuous manner, he sets high standards and pushes you to be better. He expects you to be a lifelong learner and holds you to that expectation. And he sees a life filled with books as the epitome of a life well lived. That example was powerful – life-changing, even – for me and for generations of Country Day students.

It goes without saying that Merle was a superb classroom teacher. Indeed, when our school’s centennial history is written in three years, Merle Black will thoroughly deserve his exalted place alongside names like Pattison, Strauss, and Dunn in the school’s teaching hall of fame.  

Merle Black 2022

But for me and many others, his enduring legacy is his insatiable and infectious intellectual curiosity. And it’s this sense of curiosity that led to another question Merle often asked:

“Do you want to fight?”

Now, if you heard this on a street corner or in a bar, you might flee in fear. But if you heard it in Merle Black’s classroom, you would lean in. From Merle, it wasn’t a threat; it was a generous invitation to intellectual inquiry.

Because what Merle really meant by “Do you want to fight” was “Are you ready for a battle of ideas?” It’s not so much that he sought a debate where points would be scored or victory declared; rather, he wanted you to join in the joyful quest for knowledge and truth. And he wanted you to join in because he valued lifelong learning for its own sake, not for the credential it might bestow someday.

Who could ever turn down that fight? Not I. Not when Merle beckoned me to a life of intellectual engagement, buoyed by a sense of wonder and gratitude. Not when Merle’s passionate spirit was on display every day, his voice quickening while reading a Churchill speech, his eyes welling with tears while describing the beauty of Michaelangelo’s art, and his arms straining under the weight of another pile of books destined for his garage library.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that Merle would have this effect. But at the time, it was far less certain. I was a typical 16-year-old boy whose primary interests were sports and girls (in the case of the latter, the interest was typically not mutual). To watch his authentic enthusiasm in class, though, was to be jealous of the tears streaming down his face and awed at his passion for learning. I vividly recall watching him in my sophomore year history class and thinking: “This is what serious grownups do. This is how a real man behaves.”

For that reason, it is no exaggeration to say that Merle Black has been the most important adult in my life outside of my family. His example was that powerful for me, from the way I viewed my professional trajectory to the way I viewed the world itself. In fact, I feel his influence every day I walk into work, because I would not have returned to lead Country Day without Merle’s impact. And it has been one of the great honors of my life to work alongside him these past two years.

After 35 years of exemplary teaching at Country Day, Merle retired this past June. I’ll certainly miss his daily presence on campus, but I’m sure I’ll see him again soon at a sporting event or a senior seminar. And when I do, I’ll be sure to ask him “What are you reading?”

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the August 2023 edition of the publication.