A Tribute to Bear O’Bryan

bear caveToday I received the sad news in my inbox that one of my high school English teachers, Greg “Bear” O’Bryan, passed away over the weekend.

Mr. O’Bryan, as I knew him, was one of a kind. You knew that right away when you met him from his long, dark hair and thick but well-trimmed beard. The sign on his door listed his name as “Bear,” and the classroom inside felt like it was carved out of the depths of the school. It quickly became known as the “Bear Cave.”

He was new at my school back in 1997 when I was a sophomore, and we didn’t quite know what to think of him. Because of the hair and the dimly lit room, I think we may have misjudged him at first as a hippy who had the teaching job to pay the bills in between poetry readings and peyote breaks.

As it turned out, Mr. O’Bryan took his job very seriously. He worked us hard that year. I don’t have a specific memory to match with this, but I have a vague recollection of his anger about a month into the school year when a group of students half-assed an assignment. There was a bear in Mr. O’Bryan, and after that we didn’t mess around.

The real reason I remember and respect Mr. O’Bryan–and why I’m honoring his legacy today after all these years–is that he spent a year opening our eyes to the world and to ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite things about his class:

  • We read. A lot. And we talked about the books not like kids are trained to do today, looking for answers to SAT questions, but rather to get real, human value out of the books.
  • We each created a massive compilation of essays about art that had an impact on us. Songs, movies, books, poetry, paintings–anything that inspired us or taught us something about ourselves was fair game.
  • We watched a film called Koyaanisqatsi that was trippy and weird and really different than anything we had every seen.
  • We were given extra credit for going to a Native American festival (I think Mr. O’Bryan was part Native American, hence the “Bear”).

Mr. O’Bryan even had an impact on my current career and company. Late in the year, he assigned every to groups and challenged us to design a board game that incorporated things we had learned from several different classes that year. While most groups created roll-and-move board games, my team created a historical simulation game where players represented various plantation owners in the south during the Civil War. We even had an event deck programmed into a TI-82 calculator that evolved over time based on each year in the game.

Thank you, Mr. O’Bryan, for the incredible and lasting impact you had on me. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this while you were alive. (Also, I’m sorry for not reading the book Of Mice and Men. I thought it was a play for some reason, so I read the play and only later realized during our class discussion that the play was based on a book. Lesson learned.)