Gray Matters - The Colonel
Belfast — Do any of you remember what it was like back in school when you found out you were going to have a substitute teacher for one of your classes?
The typical reaction was often one of joy, especially if it was one of those classes in which you did not perform all that well (algebra was a big one for me in middle school). We kids would then chalk up that portion of the day as one for things like idle chatter, passing notes from one end of the room to the other and other general forms of middle school student-led chaos.
But there was always one substitute teacher I will never forget, and it wasn't because of how little we accomplished while he was standing at the head of the class — quite the contrary. And if you ever had United States Marine Corps Colonel Bruce MacLaren as a substitute, you will be among those in the community who will immediately understand why.
I was reminded of this no-nonsense substitute teacher, known to many of us as simply "The Colonel," just this past week after The Journal received the information for his obituary following his death at the age of 82.
One of the things I remembered most was how little he tolerated anything that could be construed as shenanigans, tom-foolery or hooliganism while he was in charge. One of the first times I ever had The Colonel as a substitute teacher, he started out by informing all of us that he would not allow gum-chewing in the classroom. Anyone caught doing so, he said, would be asked to take the gum out of their mouth and secure it firmly to the end of their nose for the remainder of the class.
Even back then I was pretty sure he was kidding. Nonetheless, I was one of more than a few who immediately swallowed our gum.
Listening to this articulate fellow with a well-maintained short haircut, crisply ironed shirt and the wooden camouflage cane he carried, I slowly started to figure out the kind of force we were up against. As he spoke about the classroom rules, I found myself sitting up a little straighter at my desk. From then on out, without thinking about it, I and my fellow classmates often referred to him as "sir."
As we got to know The Colonel over the years, we learned he served as a marine for 30 years, and sometimes he would tell us stories about the time he spent serving the country. He would tell those tales with in a light but informative way, with a bit of dry humor that we all came to enjoy.
While we came to look forward to seeing The Colonel in the classroom, we always knew he was the one substitute that refused to put up with any of our ridiculousness. That was because he commanded respect, and because he was very clear about his expectations for our behavior while we were in his charge. Those expectations never changed, and we always knew that if we were working on a particular subject or another with our regular classroom teacher the day before, we could certainly expect to continue that work under The Colonel's able guidance.
And he wasn't afraid to administer the occasional pop quiz, in case anyone was wondering.
The Colonel had just the right combination of firmness and positive energy, the kind that was needed to keep us middle school kids in line, but also keep us engaged and learning.
As I grew older and began my work here at The Journal, I would see The Colonel in a new way. Not so much as the no-nonsense substitute teacher, but as a member of the community that was remembered by two of my past editors for his ability to consider topics with an open mind, and one who could carry on a spirited discussion with no hard feelings should he happen to disagree with a point that was made.
A lot of my classmates shared their memories of The Colonel as the news circulated on social media last week, and they were many. One guy I went to school with remembered how The Colonel gave him a camouflaged pen shaped like an arrow for acing a quiz.
The common thread in the comment postings, however, was that we all arrived at the consensus, pretty quickly, that the former School Administrative District 34 did a really smart thing when they hired a career marine as a substitute teacher. He did the job and then some, as evidence by the scores of us who remembered The Colonel fondly in that role after learning of his passing.
Rest easy, Colonel MacLaren, and thanks for caring enough to expect more from us. Semper Fidelis.