Norm Williams is history.
When the Stowe High School teacher started his career, the fall of Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War, was a current event.
None of his current students at Stowe High School remember 9/11. Hardly any of them were even alive when the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
Williams is retiring this month after 44 years of teaching, 44 years of watching the timeline of history race alongside him and his lesson plans, 44 years of trying to prepare students to become civically engaged.
“Mr. Williams always made history exciting and showed us we can play a part in events that will one day be historic,” Chris Pelletier, now a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, said of his former teacher.
Vickie Alekson, president of the Stowe Education Fund, said her son took his first AP class with Williams this year, “and would come home raving about it.”
“We’re quite bummed that we don’t have one more year with him,” Alekson said.
In the ultimate “where were you when…” question of our generation, Williams remembers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a freshman came running into the study hall that Williams was overseeing. The kid was late, and said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. Whatever lesson plans Williams had prepared for that semester went out the window.
Now, he said, 9/11 is something students have read about.
“That’s not in living memory,” he said. “There's some knowledge of what happened, but you're effectively teaching ancient history; you might as well be teaching the Peloponnesian Wars.”
Williams got his start teaching at Lamoille Union High School in 1975 — the end of the Vietnam War — and started at Stowe in 1980 — the Mount St. Helens eruption and murder of John Lennon.
Stowe offered more money than Lamoille, which was a relatively new school when Williams joined the faculty there. But he found all the rumors about Stowe being an elitist bubble completely unfounded.
“One of the first comments everybody made is, ‘Oh, you’re going to go over to all those snotty Stowe kids.’ Which, of course, was the reputation, but it was absolutely untrue,” he said. “In 1980, this was a pretty normal town.”
Back in the day, he said, his students were largely the kids of innkeepers and longtime families with last names like Percy, Mayo and Salvas.
“In the old days, the kids drove the worst beaters you’d ever seen,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s the teachers who have the beaters.”
Williams, 69, was born in New York City but lived in Princeton, N.J., until he was 10. The family moved to Caracas for a while and then to Woodstock, Vt., where his father was from originally. He attended the University of Vermont and took the job at Lamoille not long after he graduated.
History is mutable, as today’s current events become something that tomorrow’s generations look back upon. What about those who teach history?
Williams said when he started teaching, social studies was largely a history of violence, with students memorizing the dates of the big wartime events: D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Waterloo, Bunker Hill.
As time went on, and as he matured in his thinking and kept up with history-in-the-making, Williams started to include more things not found in the textbooks, or at least not in enough depth: women’s rights, LGBTQ issues.
“Like many boys and young men, my major area of concentration when I was younger, studying, were things like the military conflicts, politics, that kind of thing, and over the long run, what has changed is I’ve become much more focused on social history, the interrelationship between peoples,” he said.
“So, it's much more inclusive, which is good, and you’re no longer sitting there talking to the five boys in class with the 15 girls looking blankly at the wall.”
Pelletier said Williams’ classes “always felt like a performance rather than a lecture. He could tell when his audience needed to hear something exciting.”
For instance, Pelletier said, when he sensed the class needed a break from discussing “The Wealth of Nations,” Williams would launch into tales of Adam Smith’s severe mental illness. When the class got further into American history, Williams told the class about his time at Woodstock and “the adventures he had there,” Pelletier said.
Junior Sage Lively, who like Pelletier has been a Stowe Reporter intern, took one of Williams’ AP courses this year. She was impressed that Williams included parts of history that a lot of books leave out, such as the gay rights movement.
She remembers learning how Alan Turing, the man who broke the German Enigma code in World War II and laid the groundwork for modern computing, was chemically castrated when it was discovered he was homosexual.
Lisa Senecal, a director at the Stowe Education Fund, said both of her sons — one who already graduated and one who’s walking next weekend — had Williams as a teacher. She said when it came time to select courses each year, her kids always checked to see what Williams was teaching that semester.
“With a few exceptions, they were the most educationally lit up talking about what happened in Mr. Williams’ class,” Senecal said.
Sharon McDonald’s family has lived in Stowe for only a couple of years, but she said that, as an educator herself, she knows quality when she sees it. She’s also Williams’ neighbor.
“It’s very important to know your students are also individuals, and he universally looks at the kids as if they are individuals, and lets them ponder and explore their thoughts,” McDonald said.
Williams was long known for his State and Local Government class, particularly for his insistence that each of the students attend a select board meeting.
He’s a big fan of primary documents and public records, too, going so far as to show the students his property tax bill, and how they could find those things in the Stowe town clerk’s office.
“Of course, they then spend the entire rest of class looking at each other’s tax bills,” he said. “You know, they’re interested in those kinds of things. Give them the tools to make them interested.”
State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe said of her former teacher, “He was probably one of the most influential people in what I’m doing, and a lot of it had to with the State and Local Government class.”
Scheuermann said she wasn’t a great student, but even when she got a C in his class — Williams was a tough grader, but fair, she said — she still learned a lot.
Williams was a lot of fun, too.
She remembers that at her high school graduation, after she walked up to get her diploma and back to her seat, she opened the leather diploma cover to discover, instead, a handwritten note from Williams and two other teachers. It read, “Whenever you least expect it, expect it.”
Scheuermann repaid the favor in 2007, recruiting her old social studies teacher to run for election and join her on the town select board.
“I said, ‘Come on, Norm, you always taught us to do these things,’” Scheuermann said. “He was always very thoughtful, and he brought that thinking to the board, which is what we needed.”
Williams said, yup, that’s pretty much the way it went down.
“She basically shamed me into it,” he said, laughing. “She said to me, ‘You taught me politics. You made me get into this stuff. Now you’ve gotta run. You will put your money where your mouth is.’”