On December 3rd 2010 someone who was most responsible for opening my eyes and making me realize I had a brain passed away. That man was Clifford K. Eriksen, who served as the Headmaster of The Knox School from 1971 until the year 2000. For 3 years of my life he served as a person to admire, to respect and at times to fear but he was always the man in charge and I am grateful for that. The majority of my memories of Clifford Eriksen are extremely fond. In fact to use the word “majority” is not fair because I cannot think of Mr. Eriksen without smiling. Even when I think of the few times he yelled at me directly, and I can count those times on one hand, I smile because I really did deserve some type of dressing down. The thing is, when he would be disappointed in me (I’d like to think those times were very rare) he wouldn’t yell at me, I could look at him and see that disappointment on his face. He was a man that I found myself never wanting to disappoint.
I first met Mr. Eriksen in 1987. My parents realized that the private schools in New York City weren’t providing the structure I needed to produce academically. At least that’s what my Father said. Truth be told, I was a hyper kid, kind of a spazz. I was definitely a class clown, but being the class clown leads to people underestimating you. I had been underestimated my entire academic career mainly because very few if any of my teachers truly challenged me mentally. I say this in retrospect mind you, I never could put my finger on why I underperformed at the 2 previous schools my parents had sent me to in Manhattan. So by my freshmen year of High School in 1986-1987, with my grades consistently at a C average, my parents began looking into sending me to Boarding School. Now let’s get something straight here, by Boarding School I do not mean a Military School or a Catholic School. There are hundreds of Boarding Schools in the United States that are neither. One of these schools was The Knox School in Saint James, New York. About 90 minutes to 2 hours from New York City, it is a small school, almost a world unto itself. My father and I drove up there one Friday, at least I think it was a Friday, I cannot think of another school day my father would willingly pull me out of school for and I wasn’t very happy about it. I knew by February of 1987 that I would not be returning to my current school in the city for my Sophomore year. I had no real reason to be mad, I actually hated the majority of my classmates and had only one real friend and to be honest I was probably holding him back.
I remember my interview at Knox being in the spring so it was either March or April of 1987. My father and I arrived at The Knox School for my interview 45 minutes late due to my having read the driving instructions wrong (don’t ask), something my father was not happy about given his penchant for punctuality. We walked into the administration building and told the receptionist we were there for my interview. We must have waited, I mean usually one waits before being ushered into an interview but to me now I just seem to recall Mr. Eriksen coming out almost immediately to greet us. My interview and tour of Knox are a kind of hazy blur to my memory. What I do remember is Mr. Eriksen introducing me to someone at lunch that day. It was customary to have a student show the interviewee around and sit with them at lunch. The boy I was paired with was extremely outgoing, filled with charm and wit. He was also a comic book fan. This was Tom Small, who to this day I count as my Best Friend. Tom and I talked comics for the length of the meal (again to my father’s chagrin). Dad and I wrapped up my interview with Mr. Eriksen ,who came off as congenial and when he talked to me seemed genuinely interested in me, the person, rather than me, the potential student. It was the first school interview I’d had where the person interviewing me seemed that way. There was something about that, that imprinted on my young mind.
I think one of the times he came as most compassionate and most concerned about me was during my first year at Knox in the winter of 1988. It was the week of the first Open Weekend of the semester. Open Weekends were a big deal because it meant you got to go home for the weekend or at least got permission to leave campus for the weekend. I was actually skipping that Open Weekend because I was scheduled to travel with my wrestling team to a tournament that weekend. Everyone on the team had been told that those that went to the tournament would receive their Open Weekend the following week, so no harm no foul. I remember it was a Thursday and classes were done for the day. Everyday after lunch there was “7th Period”, which was when students could get extra help from teachers and get a jump on their homework. I had been sitting in my room when Mr. George, one of my Dorm Parents, told me that I had to go to the administration building to see Mr. Eriksen. Now naturally my first reaction was terror. No one gets called in to see The Headmaster unless they are in trouble. I walked from my dorm to the Administration Building, the whole walk I was going over in my head what I could have done to be summoned to Mr. Eriksen’s office. When I arrived at the Administration Building I told the receptionist that Mr. Eriksen wanted to see me. I was waved into his office and he had me sit-down. It was then he told me I had to go home that weekend. My mother was very sick and had been since I had left to return to school after Christmas Break. For some reason none of it was setting in with me. I began explaining that I had the wrestling tournament that weekend so I’d just go home the next weekend. It was then that he came out from behind his desk an looked me in the eye “Jamie,” he said, “You need to go home this weekend. Your Mother is sick and your father isn’t sure what is wrong. You have to go home!”. This was said firmly but there was so much compassion in what he said combined with such urgency. I was struck dumb and replied “Yes sir”. He looked at me a bit longer and then nodded and we called my father so he could explain what was going on. Mr. Eriksen sat there, watching me during that call to make sure I was alright. It’s one of those moments in time from my life that is forever etched in my memory.
Clifford Eriksen was more than just my headmaster and teacher. He was a surrogate father to close to 200 students, day in and day out for 30 years. He cheered our every triumph and felt our every loss. He was the man that made me appreciate the joys of literature and how to use my mind as a weapon of critical thought. It was at Knox that I actually developed my first true sense of self-worth and it was in no small part thanks to him and his teaching staff. Yes, he was strict. Yes, there were times that his temper would show. But that is true of any parent. I honestly believe that there isn’t one student that passed through The Knox School that Clifford K. Eriksen didn’t care about. His legacy at Knox, in my eyes, was giving a place for young minds to unlock their talents and potential and then letting those minds feed and grow on what Knox had to give them. If he let his temper show in the classroom, it was because he saw someone not living up to who and what they could be. I was in his English Class for 2 years and once, during my Junior year, one my of classmates had not completed an assignment. Mr. Eriksen wanted to know why. The student’s response was “Honestly, who cares?”. Mr. Eriksen became so angry at that response. He threw down his book and yelled “I CARE!”. That was the thing, he DID CARE! It wasn’t that he cared about the assignment per-se, what he cared about was the student NOT caring about their own wasted potential.
I love my Alma Mater and Clifford Eriksen is one of those reasons. He wanted us to love our school and think of it as more than just a school. He had to know that the majority of the students resented being away from home and being forced to be at Knox. That is why he emphasized that it was more than a school, it was Your home while you were there. The Knox School was a family. From the way meals were served (sit-down family style, no cafeteria here), to how athletics were handled (mandatory, a family is a team and everyone should be part of a team).
The last time I spoke with Mr. Eriksen was on his Birthday in 2010. He was genuinely happy to hear from me, the last we had talked before that was in 1999 at Knox. We covered the simple small talk, how each of us was doing and all that. His speech was a little slurred, as I believe he had suffered a stroke a year or two prior, but that didn’t detract from the conversation. Finally I said “Sir, I have to thank you. There are 2 people that I consider as having shaped me into the man I am and have a profound impact on my life. One is my father and you are the other”. He said thank you and that hearing me say that was very important to him. We talked for a little longer and then said good-bye. I came away from the conversation feeling good because I let someone, who has meant so much to me personally, know how important they were. Sometimes it is what isn’t said that can be important but this was a a case where actually saying meant so much more.
The Knox School held a Memorial for Clifford K. Eriksen on April 2nd 2011. I was unable to attend. I wish I could have been there, to see old friends and tell stories and reminisce about the good old days. I wish we could’ve all had a glass of wine (off campus of course) and toasted to the life and legacy of Clifford K. Eriksen. But I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there and for some reason I feel terrible about it. There isn’t a reason to, I just do. So here is my tribute to Clifford K. Eriksen, teacher, father and friend. Thank you for the privilege of being taught by you on things way to numerous to rattle off. I’m a richer man for having known you.