Henrico’s Top Teachers – Robert Meister

If it weren't for a brief fling with meteorology in college, Robert Meister might never have figured out that he wanted to teach literature.

After a freshman year spent majoring in computer science, he switched to the study of weather for a semester. Part way through that semester, he had what he calls a strange thought: "I don’t have a mathematical relationship with the weather, I have a literary relationship with the weather."

From then on, he majored in English. "I really loved literature and its connections to art, theatre, dance, and music," he says.  "I thought that maybe I could help students make those same connections and appreciate the world in a new and exciting way." 

Meister realizes now that a special high school English teacher, Mr. Healy, might have contributed to his literary interests.

"He had an incredible passion for American Romanticism," he says of Healy, "and used to joke that he was a reincarnation of Thoreau." His memories of Healy in the classroom and in an after-school poetry club he ran were that "it wasn’t really like he was teaching, but just having a great time with the students – and along the way we learned a lot." 

To hear Meister's students tell it, he has the "Healy touch" as well – not to mention a talent for turning on even the most reluctant reader or learner.

Several former students wrote to say that Meister had an impact on them lasting far beyond their English classes, or even high school. "A phenomenal teacher," wrote one student. "inspirational and awesome," wrote another. "His classes were life-altering," said a third.

"Mr. Meister," said a former student, "teaches with a type of ferocity that makes students eager to learn. When I had Mr. Meister as a teacher I was devastated when I had to miss class, because attending class was seriously one of the greatest parts of my day."

One graduate said that Meister's class was the only one to excite during the final year of school. "Despite senioritis, I showed up eager to discuss life and literature and the human condition."

A current student – who claimed to have read not a single book in the previous six years of school – has come to life in Meister's class. "[This year] not only have I read every single work," wrote the student, "but I have loved and studied them so deeply that each one has helped me question my life."

Like Healy, Meister has established an after-school club – an opportunity for students to come and discuss whatever novels they are reading in an informal setting.  The "Fireside Chats" (complete with a simulated fire on the classroom whiteboard) are extremely popular with students, both current and former. One graduate recalls, "Fireside Chats were constantly the highlight of my week." Another student calls the meetings "magical" and says the students gain deeper insight during the casual discussions of their readings and of literature's application to life.

Meister has also created a "pen-pal" relationship between his Tucker students and a group of high school students in Alberta, Canada, through a blog in which they discuss books. The blog experience prompted one student to write that "in the past 12 weeks of his class [Meister] has connected me with more international studying methods than any of my 13 foreign language classes I have taken in high school. He asks such deep and thought-provoking questions that we, his students, can often apply them to all of our classes. In one 90-minute session, this man can make you think to such a new level that it makes reality sort of slap you in the face and realize the deeper meaning of things."

A parent wrote that Meister's commitment is evident not only in his attention to students, but in the way he evaluates their papers.

"I have seen amazed," wrote the parent, "by the amount of detail, encouragement, humor, and purely constructive criticism noted on my daughter's papers – unrivaled by any others in any of my children’s academic careers." After asking Meister for suggestions on challenging her daughter in writing, the parent promptly received a half dozen replies from him, indicating that he was researching writing camps and contests and contacting colleagues for ideas. "His commitment to helping her reach her potential as a writer," said the parent, "has been truly exceptional."

Meister also went out of his way to help a student who was sick and missed a great deal of school, obtaining a seat for him on a field trip just prior to scheduled surgery and spending extra time talking with the student about college prospects, his health, and more. "Being able to go on the field trip meant so much to my son," wrote the parent. "It made him feel like a normal senior again."

A number of students mentioned that they have kept in touch with Meister throughout their college years. "He is the type of person no one wants to lose contact with," said an alum who visited Meister over Thanksgiving break.

"I still go and visit Mr. Meister," wrote a graduate, "because he always restores inspiration in me to do my best in what I'm studying at school, but also what I am learning in life. The great thing about Meister is that he is not only an outstanding teacher, but a friend, mentor, and counselor – even beyond the classroom.

In addition to meeting with former students over the holidays, Meister has instituted a tradition of summer get-togethers and reunions that he thoroughly enjoys. "Usually," he says, "my wife and I take a few [former students] out for lunch or dinner after their first year of college and just catch up." He also enjoys hearing from students during the school year, often telling him about an activity in his class that helped them with a college assignment.  "[This is] extremely rewarding," Meister says, "since teachers don’t always know how they are impacting students."

Meister should never have to wonder if he is having an impact. Not when a former student writes to say that after taking his class, "I will never look at a book or a poem or any other text the same way. I will forever seek to find the Universal Theme . . . I will constantly read while picturing 'the movie in my head.' I will remember to zoom in on the details but to keep asking the big questions.

"I've honestly considered becoming a teacher myself," said the student, "because I can't imagine anything more rewarding than helping out a student the way Meister helped
me."

Another student suggested that calling Meister a teacher is inadequate, and does not begin to define the relationship. "He was more to me than that," wrote the student. "He was my leader, my mentor, and my friend. He taught me that interpretations were never always right or wrong, he taught me how to appreciate the world of English, and most of all he showed me my worth in humanity. He made me challenge my old self and now my new self is thankful.

"I thought that [he] would just be my English teacher, and I will walk away knowing and loving that it was him who changed my outlook on life."
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The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen’s 2nd Stage season continues with An Evening of 20s-40s Jazz featuring Antique Melody Show at 7 p.m. AMS is a nostalgic journey into early-American, post-parlor era music that laid the groundwork for speakeasy and lounge divas of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, such as Annette Henshaw, Billie Holiday and Ruth Etting. AMS also touts a few original tunes reminiscent of the same genre. CACGA’s 2nd Stage series highlights a different musical genre monthly on Fridays. Tickets are $17 to $21. Beverages and dinner are available for purchase from DeFazio’s Catering. For details, call 261-ARTS or visit http://www.artsglenallen.com. Full text

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