Last year, Randolph and its Alumni Association created a Founders Key award to honor the legacy of the most influential Randolph community members of the past, those who have done the most to keep its mission alive and thriving. This year, the award will be presented to Jim Palmer at a 5:00 PM reception in the Thurber Arts Center on Saturday, September 28.
Palmer taught English in the Upper School from 1974 to 1992 and was the English department chair for the last four years of his tenure, becoming a legend as both a life-changing teacher and coach. The students whom he taught and coached remember him vividly to this day, as the following letter from one of them, nominating him for the award, testifies:
If you are fortunate, you may in the course of your life encounter an extraordinary person who radically changes you for the better, transforms you in ways that you may not even fully appreciate until many years later. Mr. Jim Palmer, my 9th grade English teacher at Randolph in 1980, was that person for me.
He challenged my interests and abilities and made a life-shaping impact on me.
I loved reading and writing, but I had never been challenged to become deeply reflective and analytical in my reading, or to push my writing to new levels. Mr. Palmer sparked in me a realization that a whole wide world existed in literature and writing, a world that felt simultaneously intuitive and unknown. He challenged my interests and abilities and made a life-shaping impact on me. Everyone at Randolph knew about the “Palmer paper.” I have no doubt that at Mr. Palmer’s current school, Altamont School in Birmingham, every kid still knows about the Palmer paper. In my day, it was of precise length, perfect grammar, original thought, handwritten and folded crisply lengthwise. Mr. Palmer demanded a lot from his students, but we all knew he was teaching us something important. It wasn’t just writing; it was developing your ideas. It was communicating well, on time, and with great respect for a teacher who would grade you fairly.
Mr. Palmer’s teaching provided the foundation for critical parts of my life. He imbued in me an enduring love for literature and literary criticism, a love which I pursued in college through a major in English. He provided the writing foundation for my days in law school and my work for two law journals. He provided the foundation for my creative writing, and also the scholarly writing I did in seminary as I pursued a masters in theology and wrote a thesis. And even many years later, as I wrote my first book, which examined spiritual theology yet also required personal narratives, I thought of Mr. Palmer.
Mr. Palmer understood the poet in me at a time when others did not.
Mr. Palmer made a point of introducing a wide variety of ideas underlying great works. As just one example of his energetic outpouring of teaching that touched my life, I remember him teaching our class about a 16th-century friar named John of the Cross and the idea of the dark night of the soul and how this idea worked as a literary concept. Years later, John of the Cross and his theology became an important influence in my own theological thought and writing.
Mr. Palmer understood the poet in me at a time when others did not. He helped me value the poetic and taught me to write out of that space, which came forward in the form of short stories and poetry. All these years later, as a published poet, I look back gratefully on my teacher who cheered on my creative work at a key developmental moment. Mr. Palmer encouraged me and gave me confidence in my abilities. That was perhaps the kindest and most critical thing he did for me as a person, and as a writer. He urged me to publish my creative work in the school journal. He pushed me to take greater risks in my writing, and to see myself as a gifted writer
Thirty-nine years later, he remains the single most influential teacher in my life.
I have no doubt that it is still what he is doing, for each and every one of his students. Thirty-nine years later, he remains the single most influential teacher in my life. I would like to nominate him for the Randolph School Founders Key because I believe that there is no greater testament to “the lasting impact of [his] completed legacy at Randolph” than the lives he has touched. I offer mine as an example of his excellence and profound impact as a teacher.
Laura Reece Hogan – Class of 1984
This past spring, Palmer retired from the faculty of The Altamont School in Birmingham after a tenure of 26 years.