GLEN HEAD, N.Y. -- ''If only one-twentieth of what's been said here tonight is true,'' mused the wry Bernard Shulman before a dinner audience of 100 on hand for his retirement party, ''then maybe I shouldn't be retiring after all.''
The crack drew another laugh. An English teacher and guidance counselor for 38 years at North Shore High School in this kempt Long Island village, Shulman was lavished with perhaps as many laudatory adjectives as ever were uttered on one occasion by local orators. As a lavisher from afar, I was returning in sonship as both a native and a prodigal -- to repay debts to Shulman as an educator and restate feelings for him as a beloved friend.
He was my senior-year English teacher in 1956. Physically, he had the lank of a 6-foot-4 frame, which moved around the classroom as though he were a road show. Intellectually, his mind had a rare lightsomeness that transformed the most ponderous texts into understandable prose. The message of his infectious love of literature couldn't be missed: if an ordinary Joe like me can work up a sweat for Shakespeare or Milton, then the masters can engage your minds too. Give them a chance.
Most of us did. Whatever Shulman may mean to others he has touched -- a heeded sage to the 3,000 students he has guided in nearly four decades or a respected backer of teachers' and children's rights against school-board chicaneries -- he was for me at 17 a kind-hearted thrower of ropes. I was sinking academically. Knowing of my linear consistency for Fs, Ds and Incompletes in algebra, geometry and other required math time-wastes, Shulman said: Kid, you've a problem. You may not get out of this place. Let's figure something out.
We did. Noticing that I was crazy nuts about slapping down words on paper and had been devouring all he had to offer in his English class, Shulman arranged that I do extra writing for him. He'd supply the extra credits and maybe at the end of the year they would add up. Diplomaed, I could then slip out, though still flunkingly ignorant about
As the first high school English major at Shulman Prep, I wrote about 1,000 words a night: essays, short stories, poems and prose excesses that can now be called, with only minor pain, adolescent disgorgings of words. Bernie Shulman would take anything. The papers would come back a day or two later, sometimes with surgical editing, other times with such tersenesses as ''come off it,'' ''you don't really believe this, do you?'' and an occasional ''not bad.''
Shulman's philosophy of education, at least as I benefitted from it, is one that the academic mahatmas would dismiss as permissive. It's the favored word of their reports. I should have been made to suffer through the math courses. Shulman would say bullbleep: if a kid is fired up about writing, or any subject, including math, then the school's highest function is to fan the flames, not smother them in the name of ''fulfilling the requirements.''
For a year, Shulman fanned. The papers I gave him were the flammables that still burn. In the past 20 years of newspapering, I've averaged about 2,000 words a week. That's in the range of 100,000 words a year, and 1 million a decade. I'll be sitting down to my third millionth soon. One of these years, I'll have to get a job, at least, if Mark Twain, one of Shulman's favorites, had it right: ''Work is what you do when you'd rather be doing something else.'' It was play that memorable senior year, and it's play today.
Since Shulman hasn't been working either all these years, I asked him the other evening for his views on high school education. Among them:
''The choice of courses should not be state-mandated. The New York State Regents Action Plan is an example of Mandate Madness.''
''Kids who don't want to go to school, or who disrupt, should be offered a variety of alternatives -- from CCC-type activities, vocational schools, internships with business and industry, halfway houses or drug-rehab centers, state and federally supported.''
''Lawyers should not be allowed into the schoolhouse. Disagreements on salaries, promotions, discipline and curriculum would have to be settled within the school community.''
''All curricula should include volunteer service in a hospital, senior-citizens home or hospice'' backed up by ''field trips to jails, cancer wards, slum areas and schools for the mentally retarded.''
Coming back to Washington from Glen Head I had an easeful train ride to reflect on Bernie. I realized -- it's taken 32 years to sink in -- that this half-eccentric and fully lovable man was trying to teach me, and the other 3,000 dolts, not only English but also math. As a poet put it, add peace where there's none, subtract violence when you see it, multiply love when you can and divide hate when you must. No other math matters.