George Lang: Teacher, Mentor, Philosopher, and Friend
by Ellis Turner

George Lang: Teacher, Mentor, Philosopher, and Friend

“If you think about it, all life is multiple choice.”
From The Collected Sayings of George X. [sic] Lang, 1980-1981

When I arrived at Sidwell Friends in late August 1980, the School had no official system for the education and orientation of new faculty members. Unlike today, when all new teachers are assigned a mentor, new employees had to pretty much fend for themselves. To a certain extent, the Faculty Room served as the place where freshman teachers were taught the ropes about dealing with students, parents, and, of course, The Administration. Back then, before the creation of more comfortable and commodious department offices, the Faculty Room was a crowded and popular beehive of social activity and serious discussion. It was there, in the area where the photocopier now sits (then a mimeograph machine) that I first laid eyes on George Lang.

It was at the end of the day, during the week of opening faculty meetings, when George and I found ourselves alone in the uncharacteristically quiet staff room. As he was about to walk out the door, George turned and casually started to ask me some questions, mostly about contractual matters, such as what duties I had been assigned. Upon hearing my answer, Lang’s response was swift and sure. “Well, don’t let them take advantage of you,” he advised, referring to The Administration. There was a combination of both compassion and irreverence in his message.

George William Lang was born in Philadelphia, February 11, 1943, and attended Brookline Elementary in Havertown, PA. The family moved to the Detroit suburb of Southfield, MI when George began 8th grade but after a year they moved on to Louisville where George enrolled at Seneca High School. After junior year, the Langs were on the road again and George spent twelfth grade at Lorain High in Lorain, OH. Although George had the highest GPA of anyone in his class, he was denied the honor of valedictorian due to the school district’s residency requirements. Perhaps his consolation was being named a National Merit Semifinalist and receiving a Ford Scholarship covering his entire four years of college. George’s father was a Ford executive and the family’s migratory pattern had its origins therein.

As stellar as George’s academic record was, he seems to have been disinterested in many extracurricular activities at school. The only exception was the Projection Club, which performed the valuable service of assisting teachers project films in class. Outside of school, George spent most of his time riding his Harley-Davidson and Honda motorcycles and his Progress motor scooter. In the summer of his senior year he was employed by Ford at their plant outside Lorain.

When the time came to think about college, Lang only applied to three schools—Harvard, Western Reserve, and Oberlin. Although he received acceptances from all, George chose Oberlin because of its music conservatory. While George intended to become a physics major, music—especially the piano and organ, which he studied from the time he was in grade school—has always played a major role in his life.

So in the fall of 1961 Lang hopped on his Honda Superhawk and rode the 20 miles down Highway 58 from Lorain to Oberlin. George’s college career was every bit as successful as high school. He had the highest GPA among the freshman class and ultimately went on to graduate magna cum laude as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Grad school seemed like a logical next step for a student of George’s caliber. But after two years of pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Maryland, Lang became restless and eager to start earning a living. George had no problems securing job offers—as a civilian field engineer on a nuclear submarine based out of New York and as a programmer at IBM in Bethesda. However, he had also been interested in pursuing a career in teaching. His method of looking for jobs in the field of education will seem quaint and antiquated even for those who were around during those years: he opened the Yellow Pages and looked up “Schools.” George started to cold call various local institutions when someone told him that he should try Sidwell Friends. In the end, Lang secured three interviews and three offers—at Landon, The Woodward School for Boys, and Sidwell Friends.

George spent his first two years at SFS in the Math Department as the sole teacher of Math I and Math III. During that first year, Lang also served as assistant cross-country coach (yes, I documented George’s claim in the Archives.) When the physics teacher, John Johnson, suddenly left the School, George was offered one section of physics—the only section—with a bustling enrollment of eight boys. Slowly but surely enrollment in physics increased and George’s math teaching days came to an end. As a member of the Science Department, George created the School’s first AP Physics course in the mid-1970s (which he has continued to teach virtually non-stop over the remainder of his career). George became the chair of the Department in 1987, serving in that capacity for over 10 years.

During George’s tenure as a physics teacher at SFS, students have qualified for the prestigious Physics Olympiad while others have won grants from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Program, which challenges high school students and their teachers to come up with technological solutions to real-world problems. One grant was awarded to SFS for research into a vibration device that stops ice from forming on car windows; a second grant involved the generation of electric power using rain and gray water. But perhaps the “award” that has most pleased George is his lifelong friendship with former student Bill Nye ’73, aka The Science Guy. Nye has claimed on more than one occasion that it was Mr. Lang who really started him on the road to a career in science.

Bill Nye is only one of a legion of students who have fallen prey to the Lang mystique. For years, students have delighted at his worldly, cracker-barrel philosophy--on subjects ranging from the inevitability (and inadvisability) of attending law school to the wisdom of owning pets over children. A collection of the “sayings” of George Lang first began to surface in the early 1980s at the hands of AP Physics students. Some of the now-rare specimens housed in the Sidwell Friends Archives (such as the cleverly titled Book of Language—get it?) offer a glimpse into what it must have been like to have had George as a teacher. Here are a few of my favorite gems:

“This isn’t very important, this stuff. I’d forget it right now if I were you.”

“Why not have four vicious leopards around you at all times? No one would even live on your block. I guarantee you would never get robbed if you walked down the street with four leopards.”

“I’d much rather have power without responsibility.”

“The temptation to destroy what other people have created is overwhelming. If you don’t believe that, look at the Senior Lounge.”

“I’ll change your grade from a C to an A. I’ll do that. But you’ll have to pay me enough money so that if I get fired for doing it, I’ll still be able to live comfortably.”

Some of my fondest memories at SFS involve working with George as a co-advisor to an array of long-forgotten student clubs and programs. In the early 80’s the Sidwell Film Society drew dozens of Upper School students to campus on Friday nights to watch a variety of cult and classic films (Harold and Maude and The Song Remains the Same to name a couple). Every year the Film Society would also sponsor the projection of short instructional films from the 1950s during assemblies. A Day with Fireman Bill, Dating Do’s and Don’ts and Lunchroom Manners were the top hits, year after year.

The Film Society inspired the creation of a summer film series in the then-new Kogod Arts Center. Sidwell Cinema, as it was known, offered evening film entertainment throughout the summer, seven nights a week. The series, which was open to the general public, was a smash hit from 1982-1987, before finally succumbing to the emergence of the VCR. Following the closing of Sidwell Cinema, George and I decided that the next generation of students needed a return to the earth and the Sidwell chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) was born. In the northeast corner of the Sledge Garden (alongside the chain link fence that connects Sensner Building to Wannan Gym), the ground was ploughed (courtesy of Tom Farquhar and his Rototiller) for the planting of vegetables. FFA only lasted a few years, and was certainly one of the most obscure clubs that ever existed on campus.

When I met George in the fall of 1980, he had very recently been married. He met his wife, Mary, during an employee strike at Discount Books and Records where he moonlighted on weekends and evenings.* As Mary attempted to enter the store George tried to stop her. One thing led to another and after the wedding the love-birds moved, as he put it, “to the suburbs.” While George wasn’t actually living in the suburbs (Morrison St., NW in Chevy Chase, DC) it felt like it to him. For many years George was a well-known figure in counterculture circles in the Dupont Circle area, then the center of hippie-yippee goings-on, where he first moved in 1967. His house on S Street, NW was the headquarters by night for his merry prankstering. One of his roommates was a friend of Tom Hayden, author of the Port Huron Statement and a founder of the New Left anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Once, Hayden’s wife, Jane Fonda, stopped by to hang with George and his friends during one of her travels to DC with the Indochina Peace Campaign. That connection resulted in some very interesting overnight guests, such as South Vietnam Air Force pilot-defectors looking for a safe place to crash.

Little did I know that early autumn day in 1980 that George Lang would go on to become my unofficial, underground mentor, my most trusted advisor, and my closest personal friend. To multiple generations of students and faculty, George is the perfect embodiment of a Sidwell Friends master teacher: well informed, witty, articulate, and devoted. The key to his success has been in understanding that the classroom is essentially a playground where student and teacher meet to laugh, to run with ideas, and to gather knowledge. They say that timing is everything—in ballet, in tennis, in comedy, and certainly in physics. It’s also true of teaching. George has a gift for recognizing exactly when it’s time to digress and give our all-too-serious and super-stressed-out students a break and share with them some extracurricular nuggets of his unique and ever-so-slightly irreverent wit and wisdom.

You know, all life really is multiple choice. Knowing how to make the right ones on the playground is what the George Lang legend is all about.


* George also had a night job as a delivery boy for a place called Chick-N-Bucket. He quit after one night because the manager insisted that he clean the grease-laden kitchen once he was done with deliveries.