When A Teacher Becomes A Hero

Sharon Koshar
When Greenwood boys heard that single word, they knew to stop what they were doing and face front. It meant that master teacher Bruce Stephenson had arrived, and for the next hour, their formative young minds belonged to him.

Stephenson arrived at Greenwood in 2006, teaching first Reading Tutorials and then History, until earlier this year. He left Greenwood just after coordinating the Gettysburg Address event one last time in February. Stephenson has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and late this winter he said a loving and heartfelt goodbye to Greenwood. “He told us not to smoke,” reported one student afterwards. “He said it was a stupid decision he made when he was younger, and he wanted us to learn from it.”

Learning is what Bruce Stephenson is all about. In his years at Greenwood, he offered himself up as a model of what’s possible, against the odds. Stephenson was born with neurofibromatosis, a condition which causes the growth of tumors on nerves. Learning disabilities often coexist with the condition, and Bruce’s parents were told when he was a child that he was “unteachable.” Luckily for Greenwood, Stephenson believed in himself enough to plow ahead, ultimately becoming a scholar with two Master’s degrees, one from Penn State and the other from Harvard. Stephenson shared that story with new students each year. It wasn’t lost on the boys that Stephenson had overcome daunting learning challenges of his own, and was letting them know they would do the same.

As a history aficionado, Stephenson periodically offered schoolwide history lessons during community meetings. The lessons were shot through with vivid characterizations and insights on human nature. Stephenson knew details about weaponry, friendships, military blunders. As a result, he turned skeptical students into history buffs on a regular basis.

Stephenson also brought a passion for rugby to Greenwood. A former coach of the Williams College rugby team, Stephenson took great joy in bringing Greenwood students to Williams matches. At times he even arranged for the boys to meet and offer assistance to the team. Stephenson reveled in weekend residential duty, announcing his activity offerings with a sense of momentousness and delight that was immediately mirrored by the students. He always had an enthusiastic group sign onto his trips.

Perhaps more than anything, students speak of their admiration for Stephenson’s sense of life as an adventure. One fall a few years back, Stephenson took a small group of students hiking in Brattleboro. “We ended up climbing most of Harris Hill in our SUV,” remembers one student. “Bruce just kept driving through little paths in the woods that kept getting smaller and rougher, and before you know it we were almost at the top of the ski jump. We kept saying, ‘Maybe you should stop now, Bruce. I don’t know if we’re supposed to be driving up here.’ But Bruce just said we were exploring. It was awesome. I’m surprised we didn’t get stuck, but Bruce said that’s what SUVs are for!”

Stephenson modeled dignity, hard work, and integrity for his students, and demanded it of them, as well. One student wrote to him recently, “Bruce, you not only transformed me as a student, you transformed me as a person.” Longtime colleague Anne Bebko agrees. “Bruce transformed a lot of kids here, because he cared so deeply. He really focused on them, both his students and his advisees, and the results, what he was able to do for those kids, was incredible.”

As Stephenson undergoes treatment, Greenwood is keeping in close touch. A team of eager students helped stack wood at his house recently. Faculty members have checked in and offered periodic updates back to the staff.

On June 1st and 2nd, Stephenson made celebrity appearances at the Awards Ceremony and Graduation, to the delight of the crowd. On June 1st he was honored with the Greenwood Alumni Award, for dedication and commitment to Greenwood’s program and students. As long-time colleague Mike Kohout presented him with the award, the audience of students, staff, and families rose and offered a long and resounding standing ovation. At the Graduation Ceremonies on June 2nd, Stephenson presented Book Awards to two students he had shepherded at Greenwood, then stayed to chat with students and their families, as well as a handful of former students who returned to campus to wish him well. Stephenson’s presence quite clearly meant a lot to many attendees, who clustered around him.

All the while, Greenwood’s legacy of profound devotion to its students and brilliant pedagogy from its teachers shines ever more brightly, because Bruce Stephenson Taught Here.

    • Bruce Stephenson at Greenwood's 39th Annual Gettysburg Address event.

    • Bruce Stephenson wearing a New Zealand "All Blacks" national rugby team hat, given to him by Dan his advisee, also standing at the podium at Greenwood's 2018 Graduation.

    • Fellow teacher Mike Kohout presents Bruce Stephenson with warm embrace and honored Alumni Award.