Reflections of a Retiring Former MisfitBy Jerry Murphy, Ed.D.'73
Forty years ago, shortly after Richard Nixon had been elected president, I was fired from a fabulous job. With gleeful enthusiasm, one of Nixon’s apparatchiks dismissed me as associate director of the White House Fellows Program, with my position filled by a Republican loyalist. Jobless and broke, and certain that the ivory tower was not my calling, I applied late — and as a last resort — for a Harvard Graduate School of Education doctorate. I’ve been here ever since and am retiring this June.
I was uncertain about graduate school because of my history as a misfit with formal schooling, which began when I was five years old. I dropped out of the first grade for six months because I loved to learn, but hated school. “It’s the law,” I explained to my parents. “Compulsory schooling begins at age six.” My parents were not exactly amused by my legal précis.
In high school, I was passionate about fishing but bored by the curriculum, and slid by academically. I was bright and curious but certainly not aware and ambitious. Indeed, I planned to join the Marine Corps, until my father insisted that I apply to Columbia University. Surprisingly, I was admitted but wasn’t ready for serious academic work and continued to slide by until a dean threatened to expel me from the marching band. I improved my grades but never got in gear at this challenging college far removed from my high school friends.
Because of this mismatch with formal schooling, I was eager to join the work force — and it turned out I loved working. I spent two wonderful years as a public school math teacher and then unexpectedly got the job of a lifetime — working for the federal government as part of the War on Poverty. During these heady days in Washington, my eyes were opened wide as I played a bit role in developing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and as I observed up close the remarkable work of several courageous leaders, among them, Frank Keppel and Harold Howe, iconic figures in the Ed School’s pantheon.
After a promotion, I was riding as high as a kite, naively unaware that my job was at risk with a new political party in power. I was devastated when I became roadkill — and clueless about what to do next. Returning to a university was not an option, but my job search was floundering. So I listened carefully when a Harvard professor friend called out of the blue and urged me to come to Cambridge. Filled with trepidation about being a misfit again, I became an Ed School student.
To my surprise, I discovered at Harvard a whole new side of myself — I was a halfway decent researcher. I also discovered that I knew a lot about practice and really liked writing about the everyday reality of how things actually worked. For the first time in my life, I was fully engaged as a student, and without knowing it, I had found a permanent home at Harvard.