Korb Eynon and tribal fame

My friend David Weinberger has famously observed that “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” (Modestly, he has noted that he’s probably not the first person to make this observation.) David makes the point that fame in an internet age can be a very different phenomenon than fame in the broadcast age. When there are only three channels on the television in a nation, being famous means becoming famous to an entire nation; in the age of participatory media, we’ll see thousands of microcelebrities, people who are famous to their own small or large communities.

David is right, of course. (He usually is.) But being famous to fifteen people is a very old phenomenon, not just a very new one.

I spent last evening in the small, stuffy gymnasium of the high school I graduated from 19 years ago. Like three hundred others, I’d come back to Danbury, CT, to celebrate the brilliant fifty year teaching career of Korb Eynon. Korb was – unhappily but steadfastly – the headmaster of the school when I enrolled in 1984. By the time I graduated, he’d returned to his natural environment, the classroom, introducing seniors to King Lear. His technique included offering himself as a picture of the half-mad king in his declining years. I bet that trick works even better twenty years later.

After patiently receiving praise from five decades of students, Korb took the stage to explain, “It’s not me, it’s the institution.” Patiently – as if we were especially slow pupils struggling with iambic pentameter – he explained that he was simply “part of the Pantheon,” part of an ever-rolling stream of teachers who’d preceded him and who now follow him. He invoked their names – Hobart Warner, Joe Grover, Donald Schwartz, Aaron Coburn, John Verdery – to murmurs of respectful approval from the crowd.

Don’t bother Googling those names – they’re not famous men. This is a small school – in just over eighty years, there are probably no more than a few thousand students who’ve passed through, and perhaps a thousand who’ve shared a classroom with each of these local legends. But in that gymnasium, to that audience, those names resonate like those of biblical prophets or Red Sox MVPs. Looking around the room – my sister to my right, three of my closest high school friends to my left, the older sister of my first girlfriend seated behind me, old friends and rivals scattered about – I saw an extended family, a small tribe. There are only a few hundred references to Korb Eynon on Google, but to that tribe, he’s Plato, Bobby Kennedy and Carl Yastremski rolled into one.

It’s easy to think of this “new” type of fame as being smaller, less profound than the broadcast model of fame. But this older fame is more personal, more intimate and likely much more important.

Driving home late last night, I realized he’d done it again, 19 years after I left his classroom for the last time. Korb hadn’t impressed his thinking on me – he’d shared something that caused me to explore my own line of thinking. In other words, he’d taught. Just like he’s been doing for five decades. Thanks, Korb.

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