Posters of punk bands complement the green and yellow classroom that once surrounded classicist Robert Fitzgerald and is now used by Thomas McGraw, Instructor in English. Dressed in a keyboard tie, red suspenders and a self-made t-shirt, he recites “The Odyssey” from memory. An army veteran and poet with a penchant for classical literature, McGraw has taught at Phillips Academy for the past 28 years.
McGraw’s writing career began in unexpected circumstances while he was in the army, when he began writing poems about life in the military. While McGraw was attending Notre Dame College, he was drafted into the army and arrived at basic training a day before Nixon ended the draft.
“I look back on [my time in the army] and realize it was the single most indispensable thing that ever happened to me. I became a man in that strict hierarchy and began to understand something about obedience. It took me about 10 seconds in the U.S. Army to realize I had a lot of growing up to do,” said McGraw.
McGraw wrote a series of poems detailing his time in the military. His favorite, “Stephens” was about Stephen, a fellow member of his basic training unit.
McGraw said, “[Stephen was] some stump chump from deep down in Kentucky who took a shit in the shower. I took it upon myself to explain to him that this is for that, and this is just a shower. He seemed real glad to know, though I’m still not sure he didn’t.”
McGraw made strong friendships in the army and likened the experience to boarding school.
He said, “In the heat of that experience, not unlike [the experience of boarding school], you make friendships that are unusually strong. The army is a total institution, like a boarding school, like a maximum-security prison, like a ward for the criminally insane and like a leprosarium according to Irving Goffman in his book ‘Asylums’ about total institutions.”
After leaving the military, McGraw attended Harvard Divinity School. There, he met a Phillips Academy graduate who contacted then Dean of Faculty, Kelly Wise. The graduate contacted Wise without telling McGraw, and told Wise that she needed to hire McGraw.
“I didn’t want a job. I was living like a king: no job, no family, no responsibility.
But abashed I sent Kelly Wise my resume. I got a call at 11:30 one night, which should have told me something about this place, and [Wise] said, ‘I read resumes for a living but I’ve never seen one quite like the one I see in front of me. Would you mind coming up here and telling me where you’ve been for the last five years?’”
After two eight-hour interviews, Wise offered McGraw the job. Though he originally turned Wise down, McGraw ultimately agreed to try out the position for a year.
“It was a glorious accident to get into teaching but I couldn’t outrun my genetics. My mom was a teacher who threw her life into her students,” said McGraw.
McGraw takes pride in Bulfinch Room 2, the former classroom of Dudley Fitz who McGraw claims was America’s second greatest translator of classical literature and teacher to the first greatest translator, Robert Fitzgerald.
“I painted my room the colors of Dudley’s day myself. [The colors in this room] are the same colors they use in an insane asylum. These colors calm you down and work sublimely on kids. I’m trying to fly the flag that Dudley carried here,” said McGraw.
McGraw is an ardent scholar of the Classics who taught himself ancient Greek and is translating The Odyssey. McGraw also teaches a senior elective in which students read the six most famous epic poems, written by Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Dante and Milton.
“To immerse yourself in those works is to feel like you’re standing on the presence of Zeus,” said McGraw.
In his English 100 class, McGraw chooses to read The Odyssey to his students while they are blindfolded.
McGraw said, “The Odyssey was never read; it was never written. It was a song and so given the decades that I’ve been translating it and have taught it, I have a lot of it memorized and have turned it into a performance [for my students]. Some might fall asleep, but it is beautiful because they wake up and it is still in [their heads].”
One year, McGraw held a pretend football game as a final for his ninth grade students, based on questions about David Copperfield.
The football would move up and down the board depending on how the students answered the questions. McGraw even rented JV football uniforms for the students and wore a referee jersey.
After dividing the students into teams of newts and emus, McGraw assigned increasing yardages to questions based on increasing difficulty.
“The kids wouldn’t leave and it was two hours into it. Allison Bartlet won the game by answering the question, ‘In what direction did David have to walk to get from Yarmouth to London?’ and the answer was North by North-West.’ [When she answered correctly,] the crowd went wild,” said McGraw.