Honoring Lewis Cobbs

Posted by James Rainey - 14 December, 2016

2X0A6001The Christine Ray Richard Outstanding Service Award is given annually in honor of Christine Richard for her lifetime of devotion to Randolph School. The honoree is not an alumnus or student, but someone who, like Christine, spent 15 or more years in service to Randolph School.

This year’s recipient is Lewis Cobbs. Lewis has been a member of the Randolph faculty since 1997, having served previously as chair of the English departments at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans and McCallie School in Chattanooga, having taught at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, and having served as commentary editor of Education Week. He received an A.B. degree with magna cum laude distinction in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University as well as an M.A. degree in English from Duke University. His accolades as a teacher are numerous:

  • “Distinguished Teacher” by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars in 1995
  • Ravenel Mastership for Excellence in the Teaching of English at Episcopal High School
  • Fellow at the Klingenstein Summer Institute at Columbia University
  • Fellow for the National Foundation for the Humanities seminars on Dante’s Commedia in 1999 and Mozart’s German Operas in Context in 2003
  • Educator of Distinction by the Coca-Cola Corporation in 2006
  • Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction in 2007 and Outstanding Educator in 2012 by The National Society of High School Scholars
  • Anthony J. Lynch Faculty Award, Randolph School, 2013

Lewis has had numerous articles and reviews published in scholarly journals and has presented on many occasions at national conferences. We are indeed fortunate to have a teacher of such great distinction as a faculty leader at Randolph School.

Lewis is certainly a “master teacher,” and today we celebrate his extraordinary commitment to the students who have called Randolph home for the last twenty years.

As Lewis received his award, these comments were posted on the School's Facebook page. As Lewis received his award, these comments were posted on the School's Facebook page.

Of all the kudos Lewis has garnered, the most meaningful might be the commendations he has received from several universities for being cited by his former students as the teacher who was most influential in their learning. Our seniors and alumni consistently name Lewis as one of the most impactful and inspiring teachers they have ever had, not only at Randolph, but throughout their entire education. They note how well he prepared them for college work, creating an environment in which they were challenged and emboldened to learn and to achieve. They speak of the personal interest that Lewis took in them, individually and collectively, noting the lasting difference that he has made in their lives. Along with our alumni, Randolph’s current students, teachers, and parents appreciate the rigor and high expectations that distinguish his courses, and regularly note how Lewis supports them both in and outside of the classroom.

Upper School Head Ryan Liese offered these thoughts when reflecting on Lewis’ teaching: “Lewis challenges his students to analyze literature and use writing to help them make sense of the world around them, human nature, and themselves. He once said that he hoped Randolph graduates would ‘prosper in solitude.’ Lewis’s students rely on his guidance and support to achieve that eventual prosperity.”

At its core, Randolph is an institution that exists to inspire learning. Whether in an English classroom, a Capstone course, a musical production, an art studio, or an athletic competition, our students have known that Lewis Cobbs is committed to their learning and growth and is there to support them and celebrate their efforts. The Randolph community, both within these walls and far beyond them, is fortunate to be the beneficiary of Lewis’ intellectual range, love of language, and love of students.

“To prosper in solitude.” In composing this tribute, I have reflected considerably on this most “Cobbsian” of maxims. Ours is an era of unrelenting noise, what this year’s Nobel laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, once called an “idiot wind / Blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote.” I sometimes worry that the noise we make increases in direct proportion with the loneliness we feel. We are prone to confusing solitude with loneliness, so we tend to fear solitude and avoid it to an extent that can be noisily self-defeating. In a recent retrospective piece in the New Yorker titled “Between Solitude and Loneliness,” the poet Donald Hall writes of the “enormous comfort of solitude” and laments those moments “especially at night, [when] solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over.” In solitude, as Lewis Cobbs well knows, we should all find our peace, not our anxieties.

2X0A6012In a similar way, prosperity is too often confused with affluence. “Prosper” derives from the Latin verb “sperare,” which means simply “to hope” – so to “prosper” means literally “to hope forward.” It is work done well in solitude, in the quiet of the mind, a kind of returning to center; and it is aided by a deep and empathetic understanding of the fullness of the human experience that the study of literature powerfully provides, as Lewis also well knows, and as the skeptics of the worth of the humanities in a person’s lifelong education invariably fail to grasp. To the question, “What can you do with poetry?,” a fitting response might be, “What can you do without it?” W.H. Auden, himself a poet, famously wrote that poetry “makes nothing happen.” How wonderful! We prosper in solitude.

Emily Dickinson was a poet of solitude, virtually unknown and unheralded in her lifetime. In one of her poems she appeals to her reader in a conspiracy of solitude: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too? / Then there’s a pair of us! / Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! / How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog – / To tell one’s name – the livelong June – / To an admiring Bog!”

Lewis, you are a far cry from “public – like a Frog,” but your life’s work and influence on behalf of your students, as well as your thoroughgoing kindness, professionalism, and colleagueship, attest nevertheless that you are far, far more than a “Nobody.” Would you accept “reluctant Somebody” by way of compromise? In any event, consider all of us here today, and your many enthusiasts besides, well beyond these walls, the constituency of your “admiring Bog.” We are humbled and inspired by your example.

It is a great privilege to honor Lewis Cobbs with this year’s Christine Ray Richard Outstanding Service Award. His wife, Susie, could not be with us in person today, as she is in England visiting with family, but we are pleased that she is able to join us through the magic of technology.* Congratulations, Lewis, and thank you for your great service to the Randolph family.

*The presentation of this award was also broadcast live on the School's Facebook page.

Previous recipients of the Christine Richard Award, established in 2005, are Patrick Richardson, June Guynes, Bob Thurber, Betty Crutcher, Kim Simpson, Jean Wessel Templeton, Polly Robb, Sandy Mullins, Ana Byrne, and Roy Nichols.

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Topics: challenge, English, learning, poetry, service, Head of School, Donald Hall, Faculty, cognitive growth, Community of Learners, Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden


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