“That’s the spirit”

To anyone that Mr. Stern has taught, he is no average teacher. In teaching style and in personality, he stands out from most educators. I have the privilege of being in one of his classes, and the experience has been at turns exciting and traumatic. Aside from the usual academics in his class, his students are treated with random bits of music that he finds inspirational. Then there are also those days when students duck as red pens – “pens of death” – come flying at them through the air. Special students get cluster bombs; Mr. Stern will throw three, four, or seven pens at once. His catchphrases are renowned in the High School: “that’s the spirit, that’s what Jesus would have done”. Yet Mr. Stern doesn’t give easy classes and individuals are very responsible for taking up their side of education – Mr. Stern doesn’t spoon feed.

I met up with him and asked him some questions as a class was silently taking tests throughout the room. I pulled a stool up to his desk as he scratched out some grading onto tests. The little room always seemed to glow with a bluish light, and on the whiteboard Mr. Stern was projecting encouraging words to his class: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” stood in bold under an image of a skull and crossbones. With the projected words catching part of my face I learned things about him I’d never known before.

“Tell me about your childhood.”

Growing up in Illinois, Mr. Stern wasn’t always a fan of school. Many of his teachers were “obtuse”, and weren’t actually very constructive to his learning. There were many classes that he liked in spite of his teachers, however, because some things truly did fascinate him. The maths and sciences of academics have never been his forte, while things like the French Revolution excited him.

“When did you first begin biking?”

“When I was five,” he replied, laughing. “But I guess that when I bought one with my own money at thirteen it was special.” He continued to tell of how he began to mountain bike and bike in races. It became more to him than just a hobby; it was really a way of being alone, and being able to process. (More on that bike later).

After studying history and political science in university, Mr. Stern took what was at first just a one-Summer job teaching English at a school in China. But there, the country stunned him. The city of Xi’an was the ancient capital of the Tang empire, and was, in his words, “super historical”. Like something from a movie, temples and ancient palaces stood preserved for eras and could be visited. He ended up working in China full time, drinking in culture and history all the while. He moved to Korea for a short while, where he fell in love with the woman we would come to know as Mrs. Stern. In her words, Mr. Stern is “active, engaged in life, passionate, and persistent”. The two got married, and soon after Mr. Stern moved back to China, now with a wife. He spent the majority of his time in China in the town of Shanxi.

His time in China was for him a truly life changing experience. In the rural town of Shanxi, Mr. Stern saw the world from a completely different perspective. English was as well spoken there as Chinese is in almost any American city. By a simple sink or swim principle, he was forced to learn the language and the local cultures. He told me, his voice slowly catching excitement and rising with a glint in his eyes, of the temples he would come across when biking far out from the town. As he told me about one ancient abandoned fort he discovered, he grabbed a marker and began drawing the structure out on the whiteboard from above, ramparts, moat, bridge, and turrets.

He lived in China for a total of eight years, and became fluent in Mandarin. He currently teaches the language to middle schoolers. After China, he came to Singapore and began working at ICS right away. In the meantime, the eldest of his sons, Andrew, has grown into an 8th grader. Andrew Stern has two younger sisters (one adopted from China) and two younger brothers (one just one year old). Andrew describes his dad as “crazy and very hyper… but also serious and reasonable”. I must say that I can see where he comes from: Mr. Stern manages to blend a likable penchant for the random and unexpected with serious and focused teaching. I can just imagine how interesting the conversations must be that he and his father have over cups of coffee, or the crazy trails his dad must take him on when they go bike riding together.

One of his students described him as “sarcastic”, and another simplify said she thought of tea. One student said that “Mr. Stern is a hyperactive, very chatty, and very caring person – I enjoy his class. He seems really athletic and has a genuine care for his students; sometimes intimidating but really easy to talk to.”

Whether he’s teaching Economics or Mandarin, attacking students or brewing them tea, Mr. Stern is near on impossible to dislike. A deep thinker and active expresser of thoughts, there’s always something interesting for him to talk to you or tell you about. If you haven’t ever sparked up a conversation with him, go find him and do so; you’ll enjoy it, and might get a cup of tea. Just make sure he doesn’t have any red pens on him.

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