Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Teacher Who Made A Difference

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on October 25, 2008

As voters throughout the area prepare to pack the polling places Nov. 4, I have to wonder: Why don't people get this involved and excited when it is time to participate in their local government?

The obvious answer is - they didn't have an Al Nuttall.

Ever had a teacher who greatly influenced your life? Al Nuttall is a former long-time teacher at Norton High School. If people want someone to blame for my involvement in local government, then Al is their man.

Mr. Nuttall taught social studies - and nearly everything else - during his many years in Norton. He coached several sports, ran the school-sponsored recreation program, and was a student favorite.

In my senior year, Mr. Nuttall taught a course called "Modern Problems." I'd like to tell you I took his class because it sounded interesting and challenging. But in truth, it just sounded a lot easier than math or science.

In that class, Mr. Nuttall introduced us to the politics of government. We studied how the Miranda case changed law enforcement in America. We learned about discrimination and the disgraceful resistance to racial equality in this country. We were exposed to political extremism and topics I knew about, but never really understood.

We also learned how our local town government worked. We studied Town Meeting and the issues facing it in that year of 1974. We learned of the role of selectmen, school committee, and finance committee. It all sounded pretty boring - until Mr. Nuttall decided to bring it all to life for us.

He set up a mock Town Meeting, completely run by students. Some of my classmates were selectmen, and they took positions favored by that board. Others were finance committee members, arguing the opposite position. The issue was what raises should be given to town employees.

The mock Town Meeting audience was the student body. The actual Town Moderator, the late Joseph Yelle, came to run the meeting. I played the role of Finance Committee chairman.

The debate was actually very intense, as both sides argued hard for their position. I don't remember which way the "town meeting" actually decided. But Mr. Nuttall made sure we all learned the rules, how to be recognized, how to treat others with respect, and how to make and vote on motions.

A week later, the recreation budget was up for debate at Town Meeting. As a newly-registered 18 year-old senior, I went to the meeting with Mr. Nuttall. He told me if I cared about the program, I needed to go and support it.

After a resident got up and spoke against it, the chances of approval seemed dim. With Mr. Nuttall's words ringing in my ears, I stood and was recognized. I spoke of the program, how it helped kids and was important to the community. People seemed pleased to hear from somebody who actually benefited, and the budget was approved overwhelmingly.

Mr. Nuttall couldn't stop smiling.

A week later I was called to the school office. I was a bit nervous - that is hardly ever a good thing.

In the office was the principal, Mr. Nuttall, and Town Moderator Yelle. Sensing my confusion, Mr. Nuttall told me the moderator had something to ask me. "I'm looking for a young person to serve on the Finance Committee" the distinguished and dignified Mr. Yelle told me. "Your teacher thinks you would be a good choice, and so do I. What do you think?"

I was probably the first would-be appointee ever to say he needed to go home and ask his mother first. But I did accept, and that led to 15 years on the Finance Committee, six years as a selectmen, 34 years of attending Town Meeting, and eventually having the honor to serve in the moderator position once held by the man who first appointed me.

But none of that would have happened without Al Nuttall, as I said when I spoke at his retirement dinner years later. I told all the people at that gathering that Al Nuttall had made a real difference in my life. And now I've told you.

Everyone should have an Al Nuttall.

BILL GOUVEIA is a local columnist and the Norton town moderator. He got an A in Mr. Nuttall's class. You can reach Bill at

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