CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Maybe some Cold Spring Harbor High School alums — and maybe a few Princeton ones, too — will recognize the man on the left. He’s Bill Shain, who taught American history at CSHHS in the 1970s, then went on to serve in the Princeton admissions office.
And he was in Changsha (of all places) last month, as part of a whirlwind professional gig touring China. We met there, and were joined by one of my own students, Helen Xiao, who is a graduate student in Changsha, for dinner and drinks on a Sunday evening.
Student, teacher and teacher’s teacher. Rather poetic, no?
Bill was in China last year, traveling with representatives of the Kitebridge program, but our mutual schedules did not allow a rendezvous. This time, they passed through Changsha, which is just five hours from Jishou. So, I asked for leave from my Monday classes and took the bus there on a Sunday morning.
Kitebridge arranges for Chinese junior high school students to attend one of several American private high schools. Bill consults with schools and such on the American college admissions process, so Kitebridge retained him as an expert. He says his role in China is mostly to look authoritative and be the token American at Kitebridge presentations, but the gig pays well.
Here’s another photo of the three of us at the cafe in Bill’s hotel.
For the benefit of my family and more recent friends, here’s a brief rundown of my connections to Bill Shain, Princeton Class of 1965. We go back a long ways.
It would be fair to say he was my favorite, and one of the most influential, of my high school teachers. He taught me AP US History, and attempted to teach me how to write a decent AP exam essay, a task at which I did only so-so on. (I think my exam score was a 2 or a 3 — not enough for Princeton to grant me either credit or placement, in any event.) He was also the high school newspaper advisor, for which I was the co-managing editor. That experience, and my work at The Daily Princetonian led to my working as a newspaper reporter for five years before heading into physics teaching.
(As an aside, Bill’s father, Sam, a former editor of Variety magazine, offered me some good advice about finding my first newspaper job.)
As one might expect, he was one of my references for my college admissions applications. Then, we reversed roles when it he applied to work at the Princeton admissions office around 1976 or so. I know it was before my 21st birthday, because Bill and his wife, Sandra, conspired with some of my Princeton Inn (now Forbes) College buddies to throw a surprise birthday party for me.
From Princeton, Bill went on to be a dean of admissions at Macalester College, Vanderbilt University and finally Bowdoin College, from which he retired to be a consultant.
As a teacher, Bill was at once friendly and relaxed, but demanding of his students. He was also supremely patient. Those traits deeply influenced my own teaching style, though sometimes I wonder if I am not demanding enough.
When he dropped me an email in early March with the subject line, “I’m here!” I was really surprised. We hadn’t corresponded in some time. Bill’s schedule was still in flux at the time, and at first we were going to meet in Shenzhen on a Friday. But then Changsha popped up as a better option.
Helen Xiao, by the way, was one of our college’s top students. I’ve known her since she was a freshman. She’s had a long association with an organization called America-China Bridge, which holds English immersion camps for high school and college students during the Chinese winter and summer holidays.
Aside from her academic qualifications, she’s also been a TV hostess, an emcee at various functions, and a model. Helen will receive a master’s degree in translation this June, and is already interviewing around Changsha for suitable employment.
While I was on the bus to Changsha, I was noodling on WeChat, a new IM service in China, and found that Helen had posted something about being in Shanghai. I sent her a DM, and it turned out she was free Sunday afternoon and was more than willing to meet us for dinner. To my surprise, she brought Bill a large bag of Hunan green tea and a packet of pictures of Jishou University. She also insisted on paying for dinner, by pulling the Chinese trick of excusing herself from the table and paying for the meal before her companions catch on to what has happened. I’ve done it, too, but she was quicker on the draw than I was this time.
Helen was busy on Monday with a job interview. I joined Bill and his associates on visits to an educational agency and to one of Changsha’s top high schools, where they gave presentations about Kitebridge to curious high school students. Several of these students had questions for us, not about Kitebridge, but about college admissions in America.
Then we had lunch, and had to go our separate ways. Bill and his associates were flying to Quanzhou that evening, and I had to get back to Jishou to prep my Tuesday classes.
Here’s hoping we can do this again.