By Erika Whitfield
In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to encounter demanding teachers. For high school, I attended Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School. Attending CRCP was a unique high school experience. It was a Black Catholic high school, then located in the Walnut Park Neighborhood in north St. Louis City. It was a spiraling extension of my education at Bishop Healy Elementary School at 2727, North Kingshighway, named after James Augustine Healy, the first African-American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church.
Blase Boettcher was my English teacher for my junior and senior years of high school at CRCP. During my freshman and sophomore years, I observed upperclassmen stressed over essays that did not meet Mr. Boettcher’s high school academic standards. He was a cranky, coffee-drinking curmudgeon. He’d rip your paper to shreds if it fell short; he’d throw your bookbag out the window, even throw chalk or chalkboard erasers at your head, and he would call you a dinkleberry.
So I thought: There was no way I was taking his class. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We were required to take his class.
All of this must sound awful. How can I speak so highly of someone who would do such horrible things to his students?
Mr. Boettcher was the teacher who challenged us to think deeply and critically about literature. He was the teacher who helped us strengthen our voices in our writing, challenging us to edit, edit again, and again, and again until it was clear, let the work rest, and then edit again. He was the teacher who would meet entire classes at the St. Louis Public Library downtown to find credible sources on microfiche that we recorded on note cards to be used in extensive research papers. We spent the entire day there until we got it right. Mr. Boettcher gave students a tough love that fostered mastery. He broke us down to build us up.
During my junior year of high school, after returning from a basketball game, my mother, younger brother and I were robbed at gunpoint in front of our house. It was a harrowing experience. The week following the incident I was absent from school. I was falling behind in my assignments. I was unfocused. I no longer wanted to play basketball.
When I finally returned, Mr. Boettcher reached out to me. He was the teacher who helped me get back on track. He was also the teacher who sponsored the school’s newspaper. He encouraged me to keep busy and recommended that I sign up for it. It is because of Mr. Boettcher, that I wrote for my high school newspaper, earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication with emphasis in Journalism. Later, I earned a Master’s Degree in creative writing thanks to another powerfully influential teacher, Michael Castro, but that’s a different celebration for another day.
On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, I attended Mr. Boettcher’s visitation in celebration of his life and commitment to young people. There were pictures displayed chronicling his decades-long commitment to people as a cross country track coach, Boy Scout troop leader, church member, teacher, friend, husband, father, and grandfather. Parents stayed to talk about how he tutored their sons and daughters in preparation for GED tests. Boy Scouts reminisced over how he started Boy Scout Troop 26 in 1970 giving students in north city access and opportunity to gain valuable life skills. He was still active with the Boy Scouts until his death on May 18, 2022. Former dinkleberries recalled when he returned their papers riddled with red ink. Years later, they would reach out to him for help on their college essays, and he obliged.
As a teacher, Blase Boettcher was impeccable. As a human, even better.