Teacher of the Year: The Mystery & Legacy of Edwin Barlow
is unlike any memoir you will ever read, because unlike every other memoir, Edwin Barlow's life was an impenetrable secret that took years to uncover.
When Mr. Barlow died, there were no libraries to reveal his taste in literature, neither wife nor relatives to mourn at his funeral, no closet of clothes to be disposed of, no records to be combed through, no diplomas on the walls to indicate his educational background, no photographs of other people in his life, and no one to claim his body at Northern Westchester Hospital.
The only thing Mr. Barlow left behind was a $500,000 gift to charity, a litany of rumors about who he was and where he'd come from -- and, of course, the thousands of stories about his inimitable, terrifying, hilarious, profound teaching style.
Mr. Barlow was such an extraordinary individual that I had trouble writing the book
. I could only introduce him to others through my eyes -- the eyes that witnessed his intense intellect and explosive classroom rages, eyes that saw mediocre students transformed into intellectual giants, eyes that searched for the terrible demons that I knew lurked beneath Mr. Barlow's fearsome visage. His portrait is fleshed out further through the strange and bizarre stories of those who managed to get close enough to know him.
However, the angle Big Peace readers may find most intriguing was the astonishing sacrifice he made during World War II.
You see, Edwin Barlow could never harm a fellow man. God simply would not permit him to. He'd always been destined for the priesthood. His mind and spirit had been devoted to the Divine from a very early age. His charity, generosity, respect for life, and love of the church around the corner from his house made him the ideal candidate for the seminary. He hungered for the spiritual. Most of all, the Ten Commandments were the unerring cornerstones of his life.
World War II changed everything. When he was drafted in late 1943, he considered becoming a conscientious objector -- one of the few who truly were worthy of the name -- but he turned that option down. The reason was not one of conscience, however. He chose to enter the Army because his mother needed the money his modest G.I. paycheck would provide. For his mother, he sacrificed his devotion to God, believing He would understand.
And although he knew he would be called upon to kill other men, Edwin Barlow did not expect that doing so would devastate his mind, body, and -- most significantly -- soul.
Luck of the draw kept him out of combat for the first year of his service. As a member of the 17th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, the closest he got was guarding the men of The Big Red One the night before the Normandy Invasion.
July of 1944 saw Mr. Barlow land in Northern France, and make his way towards Brest with a massive set of troops under the global command of General Patton. The "Dash to Brest" would secure bridges for the double-track railroad running from Brest to Rennes. The railroad was vital for transporting supplies and materials inland. Without this line, Brest would never become a useful port for the Allies. It remains one of the most under-documented portions of the war -- so unknown that it took me five years to locate what few accounts are in existence.
What I did find, however, was the moment Edwin Barlow fired his first shot in the war -- a shot that took down a Nazi soldier at a roadblock into Chateauneuf. The killing of that man shattered Edwin Barlow. He literally felt God depart his body and soul, leaving behind an empty shell.
Edwin Barlow believed that God would never, ever forgive him for what he'd done.
Like all great redemption stories, however, Edwin Barlow did find faith again. He just found it in an unexpected way.
Tomorrow: An excerpt from Teacher of the Year, in which Edwin Barlow experiences war first-hand.
Then: Edwin Barlow's road to redemption.