World-renowned writer Malcolm Gladwell thanks the man who helped him learn from his mistakes and master the written word.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photo: David Yellen; Pen: iStock
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has had his writing edited by the strictest of publications but the toughest critiques came much earlier, when he was a student at Elmira District SS.
Gladwell was in his final year when he met his match (and mentor), Bill Exley. The English composition and literature teacher only had a short time with the bright adolescent — but he nevertheless imparted techniques that prepared the high school fast-tracker for the world-class arena he now competes in.
Gladwell secured a true presence in the literary world in 1996, when he was hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker. He later became a household name with the success of his books, The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and his latest offering, David and Goliath.
To have a student achieve such a high level of success gives Exley a justifiable glow of satisfaction, but the truth is the 34-year teaching veteran is proud of all his students — and with good reason. Exley has taught dozens of prominent graduates from the small-town school, including New York Times media editor Bruce Headlam and Harvard professor Terry Martin.
But what causes such pedagogical lightning in a bottle? Gladwell credits Exley for much of it, but also acknowledges having grown up in the southwestern town of Elmira as a major contributor. Gladwell recalls the amount of time he had for reflection and independent activity. The 1970s community afforded freedom to daydream, to explore, or just to read the books that interested him — all of which allowed him to generate ideas, examine them at leisure and decide whether to investigate them further.
Exley recalls a similar magic about Elmira. “It wasn’t just a town,” says the 74-year-old retired teacher. “It was a community, in which everyone shared the same interests — the same goal of bettering ourselves and the world we lived in. Our involvement didn’t end when the school day was over. We’d go to town meetings, I coached the debating team and on Sundays, for example, Malcolm and his parents attended the same church that I did with my wife and children.”
"He instilled his passion for precision, for choosing the perfect word or phrase, and that has shaped my approach to writing."
The tight-knit locals worked tirelessly to maintain a high standard of learning, and they shared a level of commitment that started at the top and trickled down. H.B. Disbrowe, Elmira District SS’s principal, led the way by ensuring his staff was first-rate in every department. He would even travel around the countryside at night, convincing farmers that they needed to send their children to school.
“He was a man for whom education was the most important thing in the world,” recalls Exley. “He had a passion that was impossible to resist. I’ve always had a weakness for that level of engagement.”
Exley observed that same quality in young Gladwell. “He had such passion, even back then. I see him today on the television,” says Exley, “and he radiates the exact same enthusiasm he did as a student. That’s one of the key things to being an effective teacher. You bring your excitement to the plate and it fires the students up. And, if the two of you share similar enthusiasms, there’s almost no limit to where you can go together.”
While the former teacher looked for shared intellectual commitment, what won Exley a place in Gladwell’s heart was something far more human. “When you’re an adolescent, you’re very conscious of how awkward you are and so, when you meet someone who has embraced his awkwardness, it puts you at ease,” recalls the writer. “Mr. Exley was a quirky guy. Highly eccentric. He had all kinds of weird mannerisms and a funny way of laughing — but in a fabulous way. As a teenager, I found it tremendously appealing.”
But whatever brought the two together, what matters is the invaluable lesson that Gladwell took away from their in-class time. “He taught me that words can be and, in fact, must be used with specificity. He believed that sloppiness was the enemy of clarity and insight. He paid a tremendous attention to detail and that has been the basis of all my writing. I thank him for that.”
The actual process that Exley used to encourage students to write and think in a more structured way was demanding. “I’d look for instances of repetition, unclear expression and generalizations,” says Exley. “All the enemies of good writing.”
Gladwell recalls these amendments being slashed onto his copy with a vivid series of crimson corrections, each of which featured the dreaded six letters, “re-word.” “The editorial staff at The New Yorker are generally regarded as among the toughest in the profession,” says Gladwell, “but I assure you that they never mark up one of my pieces as much as Mr. Exley did. He instilled his passion for precision, for choosing the perfect word or phrase, and that has shaped my approach to writing.”
But there were times when Exley wanted to lift his lessons off of the page and on those occasions, he called on The Bard to enlighten his students. “By studying the text and saying it out loud, they start to see what Shakespeare was doing with language. It would also generate discussions which made everything more real — the classroom should be a living thing.”
That approach to Shakespeare gave Gladwell an edge in his later studies. “When it came time to study Shakespeare in college, I loved those classes,” says Gladwell. “Thanks to Bill, I was ready for that kind of complexity.”
Gladwell admits that he owes Exley an enormous debt and yet he has never openly acknowledged it until now. “I’ve seen Bill many times over the years,” says the former student. “We’ve never discussed it, but I’m sure he must know how important he was to my development. But, you must remember, he taught many, many people and he scarcely needs my career as a point of validation.”
Exley would agree. He found his calling as a teacher and fulfillment in helping shape the young minds he encountered. “I’ve had a range of wonderful students,” he says. “And every one of them has been the most important one to me.”
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.