Remembering Mr. Davis
I was lucky enough to have him for English 11. The final exam that year was on The Great Gatsby, and something about the question he posed, combined with the gentle, persistent, and patient (up to a point) guidance he had provided all year, caused literary analysis to really click in my brain. I still treasure the A- I earned on that final; he was not one to give A’s lightly, so I use the word “earned” deliberately. I probably still would have majored in English without his influence, but the comments he wrote in that blue book of mine kept me going through some hard times. He was not the only teacher who was a formative influence on me, but he gave me the key and helped me open a door to a world that has brought so much joy into my life, and I have used the approach he taught me when guiding others into the world of literary analysis. Rest well, Mr. Davis. You were a scholar and a gentleman, and it was an honor to learn from you.
—Kate Potter ’09
One of the many good things about Commonwealth during my time there was the presence of Eric and Judith, who epitomized everything that made the school such a welcoming, caring, and humane, but also academically rigorous and intense, place to teach and to learn. Eric and Judith were role models for me, both as teachers and as human beings. Every interaction I had with them lifted my spirits and made me proud to work at Commonwealth. Eric Davis was a person who improved the quality of so many lives. The world is a much poorer place without him.
Tom Harsanyi, Former History Teacher
Mr. Davis was, and always will be, one of the defining characters of my life. Commonwealth was not an easy time for me, but Mr. Davis was always willing to help, both academically and personally. I will miss him dearly.
Eric Li ’10
Mr. Davis treated every kid at Commonwealth as his one of students. He was gracious. I remember him always taking the time to give rave reviews about my theater performances. I also remember how he laughed at my Hancock poster: Cookie Monster wants you to bake cookies. It’s the small things that can enrich a student’s experience at school, and I am grateful to have known Mr. Davis.
Lorena Molina Cecchetti ’08
Eric once gave me this advice (as I recall it): “Sometimes you just need to stop class and ask the kids why we are studying this stuff. Students become so caught up in ‘achievement’ that they no longer pay attention to the meaning of what they are learning for their understanding of the world, and they only think about what the teacher might want rather than what a text is telling them.” I felt liberated to follow my instincts and do the unexpected. Some of my best discussions happened when I interrupted the assigned topic to ask that question. Later, Eric gave another version of this story to the whole school, asking, “What is the purpose of success at Commonwealth? Is it to get into the best college, leading to the best career, leading to the best family, house, stuff, leading to the best spot in the best cemetery?” As always, his words were daring, spare, and true.
Barb Grant, Retired History and Latin Faculty
One day, sitting in the lobby on top of the cabinets, I asked Mr. Davis his favorite band. He thought briefly and said, “The Fugs.” It was not an opinion I shared then nor now. Still, the answer filled me with delight, as I think it was intended to do. It reminded me that even in a school of oddballs, he was an oddball. That felt important. Especially as he was enough of an oddball to defend my staying at Commonwealth despite a perpetual state of probation, academic and otherwise. I was always, uh, fugging up; he decided to make the oddball case for me, and stood by it. I was deeply grateful then, and remain so now; it was a true kindness at a time when I needed that more than I knew. A million small acts make a life, and Eric’s acts of persistent generosity are part of what made mine. His capacity for, and grace with, such things are part of what made his—and made it so exceptional.
Joshua (Kaplan) Clover ’80
When Eric interviewed me for a teaching position back in 2005, his questions quickly made clear that here was a literary, witty, thoughtful mensch who cared deeply about not just Literature-with-a-capital-L, but also the stories that arise from simply being human. He wanted to hear details of an essay I was working on (about the curious miscellany of objects in my then very young packrat–son’s backpack). We happily discovered that we both had sons named Sam and shared an appreciation for Gertrude Stein. His droll descriptions of the challenges and delights of teaching Commonwealth students left me enticed and curious. Observing Eric’s English 9 class was a revelation. He presided with a light hand. His students responded in kind (kindly), with joyfully chaotic yet somehow focused banter; I emerged eager to teach, and learn, alongside this wizard. (After seventeen years, I still turn to the always wise, often funny notes about teaching that Eric passed along.) Eric embodied decency. He heard what people said and noticed how they said it. He, himself, wrote like a dream. I think of him as a magical combination of éminence grise and wise jester, a moral compass of a man, with a ready chuckle and those wonderful, beetling eyebrows, who adored clever repartee while disdaining artifice and pretension. He—as we say now—“built community” in myriad, antic ways: generating brainy, zany Gab topics at Hancock, offering tantalizing, quixotic electives. We all, Eric’s students and colleagues alike, benefited from the care and attention he lavished on us. His legacy—of careful close reading, thoughtful interrogation, and playful joie de vivre—lives on. Thank you, Mr. Davis, for being such an inspired and inspiring colleague and friend. I hold you in my heart.
Mara Dale, English Teacher
When I think of why I came to Commonwealth, I remember so many older teachers I admired and learned from, but I think first of Eric. It seemed as if he could see more in a page of Joyce or a teenager’s glance in about two seconds than the rest of us could in a semester. He missed nothing about the foibles and posturing of the characters, fictional and real, who surrounded him, yet somehow he also could regard them with limitless compassion and delight. Every time I feel good about the way a class or a meeting went, part of me is imagining that he would approve.
Catherine Brewster, English Teacher
Eric Davis was a very good friend to me. He always talked to me about his time at Commonwealth.
I had many special moments with Eric Davis—a nicely placed compliment could mean so much from him, and I still recall a couple. I will always love the man. My favorite story that he told us was about the tough older kids in his school who would come up to him and say, “How’s your ass?” As a survivor of middle-school bullying, I could appreciate how that question was confusing and intimidating. Some years after graduation, I ran into him and asked in jest that rude question. Gentle soul that he was, he furrowed his brow and told the story over again.
Will Brownsberger ’74
Mr. Davis was the first person in my life to signal that my writing had some special value. I had Mr. Davis for ninth-grade English. At some point early in the school year, I wrote an in-class essay—I can’t remember the subject. Mr. Davis wrote me an extensive note about it when he handed it back, which moved me deeply, and he said that he had photocopied it for his files. I had already grown to admire him so much for his sensitivity, humor, and true appreciation of literature; his validation and interest in me as a writer had an enormous impact. I still think about this moment at 41!
Ottessa Moshfegh ’98
It's been years since I've had a lengthy conversation with Eric, but that makes no difference. Encounters with him were always vivid, worthwhile, and enduring. He generally wouldn't say much, but he elicited much from me—and he listened with great care and intelligence. I remember once giving a talk at Commonwealth about a trip I had taken to Germany, where my stepmother had been born and where she had lived until she and her family fled the Nazis in 1940. I spoke about how challenging it had been for me there, for even though the landscape was scenic, and the people were pleasant enough, there was something about the place that left me uneasy. During the Q&A, Eric asked me to elaborate. I thought for a moment and then said that it wasn't what I was seeing that disturbed me; it was the ghosts. At that moment, Eric took an audible breath—and the expression on his face made it clear that he understood exactly what I was saying. R.I.P.
Rabbi Carl Perkins, Former Chemistry Teacher
I had the delightful blessing to have Mr. Davis for ninth-grade English. Being in his class was an incredible introduction to Commonwealth in so many ways—to have this teacher who truly believed words and writing were the only things that mattered, who loved language with every fiber of his body. Whose kindness, humility, care, and razor wit were apparent in every class. I remember in finals he posed several required essay questions on the books we’d read as a class, and then a choice of options for a section of the test. One option was a series of poetry prompts he’d dreamed up, and though we hadn’t written any poetry in the class (only analyzed it) it was exciting and provocative to have my teacher just challenge me to go ahead and write a bunch of poems. I went for it. Though I haven’t written more than a handful of poems since then, my work is pretty much as a writer and editor. I thank Mr. Davis for shaping my love of words into skills that have served for decades.
Rebecca Ennen ’00
Mr. Davis was an extraordinary teacher and presence in a school of extraordinary teachers (and students) and personalities. I was lucky enough to have him my sophomore year. He got us into Shakespeare, Hemingway, Damon Runyan, and more with gentle guidance and devastatingly deadpan class quips. Dan Seltzer '02 and I kept a running list of Mr. Davis' in-class gems. (e.g. "....rosehips." Pause. "Roses have hips." Swiveling his own: "Sexy little devils.") He steered us unerringly and efficiently through the sea of Great Expectations, bridging large swaths of redundant chapters with "Pip meets Estella. She scorns him." He, and his eyebrows, were still plenty capable of agitation if he felt we were neglecting the texts' potential.
He modeled gentle and light-handed, expert pastoral presence in my awkward teenage years, when all the emotional stakes were mountains and abysses. He noticed us. He cared. He helped us learn to laugh at ourselves, with love. May his memory be for a blessing.
Eric Davis was definitely in my top fave five of my beloved teachers when at Commonwealth. In every encounter with him, his teacher's authoritarian role was hidden as he was always enshrouded in good energy and his hysterical sense of humor! For you, Mr. Davis: If it's magic, then why can't it be everlasting like the sun that always shines like the poets in this rhyme, like the galaxies in time. If it's pleasing, then why can't it be never leaving, like the day that never fails, like on seashores, there are shells, like the time that always tells.
It holds the key to every heart throughout the universe. It fills you up without a bite, and quenches every thirst. So, if it's special then with it, why aren't we as careful as making sure we dress in style, posing pictures with a smile, and keeping danger from a child. It holds the key to every heart throughout the universe. It fills you up without a bite and quenches every thirst. So, if it's magic, why can't we make it everlasting like...
Azania Heyward-James '82
For years, Eric kept a frayed, stained index card pinned to the corkboard in his office. On it in his neat handwriting was a quotation from a student: “It’s all pretty boring until you start to think about it.” The speaker sounds surprised to have been jolted out of adolescent ennui. Eric was surely amused by the self-assuredness of “It’s all pretty boring.” But I wonder if Eric kept the quotation on view also to remind himself and his students of why he was teaching—to help kids discover how to go about noticing what matters. He himself seemed an expert in that kind of inquiry. Everything, and everyone, interested him, the quirkier the better. He was endlessly curious, turning objects over in his hands to appreciate them, studying pictures closely, relishing overheard talk, asking playful questions. Often, in late afternoon, I would come across him in the shadowed, nearly empty building, chatting quietly with a student he’d come across. I suspect they felt as privileged as I did to engage with his generous and original mind.
Mary Kate Bluestein, Former English Teacher
It's hard to quantify how much each experience plays in molding whom one becomes, but Eric Davis definitely had a key role in my developing a love for our beautiful English language. I have an indelible memory of him, eyes sparkling, scooting forward in his seat and tossing his tie over his shoulder so it wouldn't get in the way of his dive into a poem. I have gone on to teach English, preschool through eighth grade, in a homeschool co-op and more recently to college essay advising. Thank you, Mr. Davis, for nurturing this love.
Chloe Chaudhry ’85
I called Eric “Teacher” because I spent two years in his classroom auditing English 10 and an African Literature elective. What a gentle, brilliant educator and kind man! We students loved him and felt lighter in his presence. Eric tiptoed. His speech was light, his ideas genius, and his writing exquisite. He was both darling and giant. We were lucky he loved teaching mortals. I recently told my children that my copy of Macbeth is my greatest literary treasure. Why? Because it has my notes from Eric’s class. I cannot tutor a student without those notes. My gratitude (and love) for Eric is boundless.
Jaquelin Harris, English Tutor and School Editor
Eric Davis was my English teacher forty-five years ago! What I remember most clearly about him all those long decades ago was his kindness and the way he would listen to me with deep attention. My high school years were not easy ones, beginning with the loss of my father right before I started ninth grade. Having a wonderful teacher like Eric Davis made all the difference to me, and to this day I know my love of reading and writing was deepened by having engaging, passionate, and attentive English teachers like him.
Hao-Li Tai ’80
As I approach the end of my literature Ph.D. program and find that the most gratifying part of it all has been the nine semesters of teaching Russian language and literature, I often find myself thinking about Mr. Davis. Something we discuss in graduate student pedagogical training sessions is the idea of the Great Teacher (capital G, capital T), a cultural image of the all-knowing, awe-inspiring, endlessly enthusiastic, and generally Promethean academic whom we strive to be despite every piece of evidence reminding us that we are not, in fact, them. I am convinced that Mr. Davis' greatness was not in his being a Great Teacher—which, given his place in the history and mythology of Commonwealth, he undeniably was—but in the immense amount of quiet work he must have put in to create the circumstances that lead to significant learning in others. I cannot think of many people as well read, quotable, and witty (especially in a classroom of a dozen moody and approval-seeking teens) as Mr. Davis, but I remember him so much more for the quality of his listening. This isn't to say that Mr. Davis was silent: he was an expert at catching a stimulating thought from a student and tracing it out or humorously pointing out some triteness of phrase. But as I think about my own teaching and the type of environment I strive to create for my students, I remember Mr. Davis primarily as a Great Listener (capital G, capital L), and I cherish that wonderful and profound feeling when a teacher listens to you with interest and concentration.
In the spirit of the space which Mr. Davis created for his students, where his quiet presence amplified other voices, I would like to cede my own voice now and remind you of his. I wrote to him in January 2019, just after the end of my first semester as a graduate student TA for a course on Dostoevsky. In his response, I recognized the Mr. Davis whom I remembered from high school—as kind and affirming to an old student as ever—but also a man reflecting on a long and meaningful life, still teaching (of course!), just outside the confines of the classroom.
That letter of yours, dear man, is one of the nicest things I've ever gotten from an old student of mine. Mostly, you guys disappear into distances unknown to those of us installed in plain old classrooms. A vanishing act, is what it seems. For us, your teachers, there's a similar story when retirement comes: the person you were (Mister Davis) disappears with surprising speed. Where does that leave you? I thought I'd be Free At Last to do everything I'd longed to if only I had the time. Instead, mainly, I've gotten old. I take naps. My wife's a great cook. I write letters sometimes. Which brings me to what struck me most about your letter: how well written it is. Lively sentences, essentials that quickly come alive, every paragraph a useful mission accomplished with un-fussy skill. How much you tell me! Exactly the kinds of things I'm most interested in about old students like you but just about never get to hear. Many thanks! I'll have to say, too, that I loved hearing from you about all those notes that fill your copy of Dubliners, and that Gatsby's-shirts thing, and how you found useful that letter I wrote about being at college. Took me back into the past, it did. Thanks so much for letting me know! And you're nearby, which means: how nice it might be for us to meet up for lunch or something sometime. Let me know if you'd like to –– you'll be busy, I know."
Alexander Droznin-Izrael ’11
Mr. Eric Davis pierced our jaded skins with his infectious smiles. Our immune systems could never repel his encouragement to reserve judgment and criticism: not to scar ourselves or our writing with it but rather to apply it with reductive insight to the poems of D.H. Lawrence or Heart of Darkness. While it is true that people may catch more flies with honey, Mr. Davis chose to cultivate queens and workers, never drones, to build a multitude of healthy hives that pollinate countless fields of free-living flowers.
Hy Carrel ’97
When I was a new student at Commonwealth in the ’90s, my school job was to empty the wastebaskets. Once, I happened into Mr. Davis’s office to empty his wastebasket of papers. I don’t recall how he noticed that something was troubling me (it’s possible that I was crying). He asked me gently about my life as I sat down there in his office and spoke to him about what was giving me trouble. He listened and was so very kind and genuinely interested. Eventually, when I was heading out, on to the next wastebasket perhaps, I said, “I’m sorry I stole your afternoon.” He shook my hand and with his sudden and delighted smile—which I will remember forever—said, “On the contrary. You made it.” I lucked into having him for English both of my years at Commonwealth and took Intellectual History with him, too. Those classes and time with him shaped my ideas about the world in a fundamental way that has been with me since. We stayed in touch, and he shared sage advice at so many of my transitional stages and shared poems that have been one of the great delights of my life and have maintained my fundamental love of poems and talking about them. He encouraged me to put mine down into a book, arrange them on the page, consider how I’d want to present them. I wouldn’t have dared try it without his encouragement. I will never, never forget Mr. Davis. I thank him for the many things he did to enrich my life. And if some of my poems manage to survive me, he is the reason they do.
Sarah Kolitz ’97
On a rainy day circa 2001, Mr. Davis quietly remarked, "Without days like this, the world would be a dry and barren place."
Ben Walsh '04