In Appreciation: Terry Culleton

Terry Culleton will retire from George School this year after 39 years of service.

This year, Terry Culleton will retire from George School after thirty-nine years of service. We will honor Terry, as well as Paul Machemer ’65 and Ralph Lelii, during Alumni Weekend on Saturday, May 4 at 10:00 a.m. in the meetinghouse. Associate Head of School Scott Spence waxed poetic about Terry’s illustrious tenure as an English teacher at George School:

Fresh from earning his bachelor’s in English Literature from Haverford College, Terry began teaching English at George School in the fall of 1979. Though he took a short leave to earn his master’s degree at University of Virginia, and later a sabbatical, he has shared his art of teaching and his love of language and literature with the George School community ever since. In addition to contributing fully to the life of the English department by teaching across grade levels and developing popular electives (e.g., British Writers and Russian Writers), he would go on to teach Health and the Human Spirit and Newspaper as well. Early in his career, Terry served in residential life of the school, as a dorm parent in Orton, Drayton, and Pyle. He also served as Clerk of the Faculty, a local and international service trip leader, a devoted advisor (who would commemorate his seniors with personalized sonnets!), SAGE sponsor, class sponsor, Assembly MC, and sponsor of the literary publication, Argo, since 1981. He served on the service projects committee, committee on dress code, and Faculty Concerns, clerking the latter for a good stretch. In that role and as a weighty Friend, Terry worked hard to hold the school accountable to its core Quaker mission, the statement of which he happens to have co-authored with his wife, retired faculty member Nancy. Terry also served as dramaturg on numerous dramatic productions and, as a memorable treat for the community, he even performed as Lady Bracknell in the George School production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Remarkably, through of all this dedicated work at George School, and while raising his two sons (Malcolm ’08 and Ian ’11) with Nancy, he remained a practitioner devoted to the art and craft of writing, shared his inventive and poignant work as a featured poet at numerous readings, served as a poet in residence, and was published in a number of journals and anthologies. In 1993 he was Poet Laureate of Bucks County. A 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee, Terry has published two collections of formally crafted narrative and lyric poems, A Communion of Saints (2011) and Eternal Life (2015).

For his excellence in the classroom he received the Swayne Preceptorship and Independence Foundation Chair and twice was granted a Lang Fellowship to develop English curricula. Terry co-authored with Nancy a guide for expository writing and authored A Guide to Writing Research Papers: Form and Process. He co-authored with other members of the English department a ninth grade writing guide that utilized rhetorical patterns, and put into practice the work of the Foundational Skills Committee. More recently he produced a grammar guide.

Terry’s vast knowledge and his marvelous sense of the absurdity of the human condition allowed him to create a learning environment that is both intellectually rigorous and psychologically safe, inviting, and fun. The personal touches and connections he made with students, the high intellectual bar he set, the collaborative spirit he created, his imaginative and mischievous sense of humor, and his contagious love of language and literature made his classroom a most special place. Terry encouraged a wide range of opinions, considered each student’s opinion essential, and gave each student the same time, attention, and respect. And when he would realize that a student might be getting under his skin, he would respond with empathy and compassion, not frustration. His detailed commentaries on student writing motivated them to improve their work while providing support and confidence to share their writing with others.

Terry eventually seemed to specialize in teaching ninth and twelfth graders. He had a gift for utilizing the raucous energy of the youngest students in pursuit of thoughtful expression. His own emotional accessibility combined with a high standard of academic precision inspired seniors to readily share the depths of their pain and joy through extraordinary creative writing in his signature course, IB HL World Literature 2: Writer’s Focus. His own articulate, careful, and precise literary maneuverings were a model for students, and yet because of his humility he managed never to intimidate, only to inspire. No matter the student, he would take everything they said seriously and strived to engage every one of them in a positive personal exchange at some point during the class.

Terry’s deep knowledge of and talent for the art and craft of writing meant that he could communicate a great deal about it to his students both from a critical and an aesthetic perspective. A lover of language, especially its sounds, forms, and scansion, he would communicate these things not didactically as precepts but as unrestricted discoveries by the students themselves, providing a direct experience with the literature without translation through a middleman. This way they might seek their own truths and find their own voices, in the manner of Friends. If that sounds idealistic, well, Terry is ever the idealist. To him literature carries a spiritual power that builds meaning, sincerity, and empathy in this sarcastic age. He believes that, treated intelligently, literature can have a civilizing effect on the individual and consequently on society. He strived to develop students’ critical skills with the hope of rendering them less vulnerable to manipulation by the selfish material forces at work in the world. And he believed that imaginative engagement in literature would strengthen their ability to understand themselves, empathize with others, and live compassionately and thus joyfully, a life Terry has modeled himself, a scholarly life attuned to the pleasures, rhythms, and mysteries of love, humanity, and the cosmos.

Thank you for all of this, Terry!

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