Mr. Holderman’s Middle Name

One remarkable day in the fall of 1960, at German Township Elementary School just west of South Bend, Indiana, one of my classmates in Robert L. Holderman’s sixth grade reading class asked our energetic, ingenious teacher to divulge his middle name.

“Well, I’ll tell ya,” Mr. Holderman grinned, obviously pleased that someone had asked, “there isn’t a kid in here that can guess it.”

With a challenge like that, hands quickly went up all over the classroom. There were lots of “L” names to choose from. Our teacher called on every volunteer, but each guess was wrong. I tried my middle name, a pronoun I seldom ever repeated in public.

“Not even close,” he said. He listened to the rest of the guesses and shook his head at each. “Do you want a hint?” he finally asked.

Of course we did.

“My middle name ends with an ‘n’.”

There was another flurry of hands. Again, mine was one of them. My father’s name was Lincoln, and I thought that was an excellent candidate. But no, it was wrong, too, along with the guesses of all the others.

“I’ll give you one more hint,” Mr. Holderman said solemnly. “And this is a good one. It has nine letters.”

We grabbed our pencils and scribbled all the “L” names we knew, counting their letters as we wrote. We worked feverishly to find the elusive name after Mr. Holderman had cunningly turned the search into a frenzied competition. After his last hint, however, no more hands were raised. Finally, after hearing several minutes of grunts and groans, he decided we had spent enough time on the question that only he could answer. Anxiously we waited for him to tell us what the “L” stood for but, unbelievably, he refused. Most of us were dismayed – some were even quietly irate – but we all obediently accepted his mystifying reticence.

“LLEWELLYN!!” someone suddenly blurted out from the back of the room.

Mr. Holderman looked up, seemingly surprised.

“That’s a good guess,” he said. “In fact, it’s a darn good one.” He took a piece of chalk and wrote the name on the blackboard to show us that it matched his hints. His penmanship was flawless, and I can still see his hand sweep across the board as, time and again, he demonstrated that even a man can write not only legibly but beautifully. He looked at “Llewellyn” and shook his head.

“It looks fine, and it’s a dandy name, but that’s not it.”

We all groaned. I thought Llewellyn was the perfect answer. It was the only one in the world that fit. Was it possible that Mr. Holderman was fibbing to us? Was he irked that someone had guessed it, and determined not to give us the satisfaction of having discovered it? From that day on, I was plagued with two nagging questions: What was his middle name, and, if it really was Llewellyn, why didn’t he admit it?

My youthful cynicism didn’t hinder my education; Mr. Holderman had lots of good ways to instruct us. He devised poems and songs and association games. He told spellbinding, hair-raising, and often hilarious stories, many of which were about his own experiences. He used his classroom theatrics as rewards, handed out only if we finished our work and if no one got into trouble. More often than not, we earned the reward.

And he read to us, too. I don’t mean just a paragraph or a poem or a short story, although he did all of those. But he also read books – aloud and in class. His chapter-by-chapter renderings of The Call of The Wild and Jennifer Dances were the first full-length books I knew. Hearing him bring dozens of paper characters to life made me realize there was potent magic within the covers of books – a magic that couldn’t be found in the one-dimensional screen of our TV at home. Before long I was devouring books of my own selection, on my own initiative. Our teacher had awakened our curiosity, giving us perhaps the greatest gift a teacher could offer.

My school days, of course, eventually ended, and I quickly lost track of Mr. Holderman. Moving more than a dozen times from town to town and from state to state, I thought of him now and then when something sparked my memory and brought back one of his songs or stories or sayings. And, occasionally, I found myself thinking of him as Robert Llewellyn Holderman, a fine teacher and fellow but, sadly and paradoxically, someone who disappointed me long ago when he refused, for some peculiar reason, to be square with us about his middle name.

But that minor disappointment didn’t keep me from treasuring him. I never told him that I liked him and enjoyed his classes, but perhaps I didn’t have to; teachers, especially the good ones, have ways of knowing whether or not a student is interested in what they are saying. Besides, wasn’t it his job to teach us things? Didn’t we have a right to expect him to hold our interest every day and say things we would remember for fifty years afterward?

Some years ago I moved to Oswego, Indiana, where Robert L. Holderman lived as a youth while he attended Leesburg High School. The names of Oswego and Leesburg constantly brought him to mind as I recalled his stories of his own school days at Leesburg High School, the early days of his teaching career there, and his experiences while working summers at the Leesburg Lumber Company. I often wondered where he had gone and what had become of him, and whether or not I would ever see him again.

And then, in January one year, his name appeared in the local newspapers. Sadly, it was printed above his obituary. But astonishingly his entire name was there, including the middle one that had remained unknown for so many years. I was stunned, as if a lost letter sent years ago suddenly appeared in the mail box. In melancholy fascination I read on. He had died in California, at the age of eighty-five. His long and fruitful life was explained in just several short paragraphs. Yes, it said that he had been a teacher, but how good a teacher? How many of his students could still recite the poems and relate the tales that he had told fifty, sixty, and seventy years ago?

The obituary mentioned that one of his sisters still lived nearby, in Winona Lake. Filled with a strange mixture of sadness and excitement, I telephoned Helen Sellers to offer my condolences and to discuss the extraordinary announcement of her brother’s secret middle name.

It was a gift, she told me, to all of his former students. She laughed when she explained to me that every one of his students over the years had been teasingly deprived of its identity, and Robert had made his sisters promise to publish it upon his death. I laughed, too, knowing there were many others – perhaps thousands – like myself and my classmates at German Township School, who had spent decades deprived of that small bit of knowledge. He had used that name not only to help begin our education, but also to help complete it. He had kept us curious from that remarkable day in 1960, or 1950, or 1940, or 1930, when he first refused to tell us what it was.

Thank you, Robert Loucollin Holderman, for letting us know that, after all our guesses, not one of them was correct. And thank you for being our teacher until the end.

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