Tom Howe

My day jobs are chair of the Dane County New Teacher Project (DCNTP), Senior Program Consultant of the New Teacher Center and I also serve as a beginning teacher mentor for the Monona Grove school district. The DCNTP is a consortium of districts that’s working together to support new teachers so they can become better faster in a challenging role. I taught history and social studies for 26 years at the middle school, high school and university levels and understand that teaching is a complex mix of knowledge, pedagogy and interpersonal relationships. As Ryan Fuller—a former aerospace engineer and later high school teacher—said, “Teaching isn’t rocket science, it’s harder.”

My most memorable caffeine was in college. As a freshman I took a billiards class to meet my phys ed requirement. The class was taught at 7:00 a.m. and I was pretty groggy that time of day!

The class was taught by the world’s coolest, most laidback professor. He was old school, ‘50s cool—like Frank Sinatra. One day he didn’t have a partner and he asked if I’d be his for the day. He noticed that I wasn’t too alert and commented on the coffee I had in my hand. It was normal, college coffee from the ‘70s—you can imagine. He asked what I didn’t like about it and I replied that it was bitter—what actually attracts me now! He took a teaspoon of sugar, added it to my cup and gave it a stir. There was just something about him, being that older, cooler guy and suddenly that was the best cup of coffee I’d ever had! I drank it that way for a couple years until my sister-in-law introduced me to something even better: half and half!

Frankly, some of the worst coffee I’ve ever had has also been some of the best—like the coffee I drank after a long day of cross-country skiing by the Boundary Waters. It’s all relative!

My current caffeine of choice is dark roast, strong coffee with half-and-half, courtesy of my sister-in-law, Sara—now sugar never touches my coffee! I’ve taken it that way for 35 years.

My favorite place for caffeine is someplace local. I like to support local businesses and with my work for DCNTP we often meet in coffee shops.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Darius Howe, my great-grandfather. He died of typhoid fever at the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863 during the Civil War. Before heading off to war he had four children, one of whom was my grandfather, William Edgar Howe. William fathered a number of children over the course of two marriages, including my father, who was born when William was aged 69, and in turn my dad, who didn’t have me until he was nearly 41. So our family’s generations were quite spread out, and few people my age can claim a grandfather born before the Civil War!

I’m a student of Civil War history and I’d love to be able to sit down with Darius and ask why a farmer with four children goes to war. I’d like to hear about the battles, what it was like to live in those horrible conditions so far away from your family, the day-to-day realities of his life during the war. I know almost nothing about him and I don’t even have a picture of him. The little I know about him comes from the muster rolls where they gathered basic data on soldiers.

I’d especially love to ask him about Albert D.J. Cashier, who was born Jenny Hodgers, lived as a man, fought in the war and was eventually “outed” after an accident. They were in the same regiment and it would be fascinating to hear if they’d known each other.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine:  A reawakening of the notion of commonwealth. There’s an old English term “commonweal” that meant we all had a responsibility for one another. For instance, in colonial Boston, those who couldn’t afford or didn’t own pastureland could bring their animals to the common areas to graze, with the understanding that those animals would help to feed the community.

Today, it feels like America has gone so far in embracing the idea of the individual spirit that we don’t necessarily recognize the responsibility we have to one another. Shared responsibility was a central concept in the founding of our republic, and it’s been critical ever since. I’d like to see that sense re-emerge.