Diagnosed with cancer, beloved Caribou teacher retires
CARIBOU, Maine — “I may have this, but it does not have me,” Caribou High School teacher and National Honor Society adviser Kenneth Atcheson said of his recent cancer diagnosis.
After four decades of teaching in Aroostook and Washington counties, Nov. 22 was Atcheson’s final day instructing students at Caribou High School. The 60-year-old was diagnosed with colon cancer in June, and after learning that it spread to his liver, successfully underwent surgery on Nov. 24 to remove the cancerous part from his liver.
As a young child, Atcheson said his third grade social studies teacher when he was going to school in his hometown of Woodland, Mrs. Helen Williams, sparked his love of history, inspiring him to pursue his calling.
“She made social studies come alive,” Atcheson said. “We had this book that dealt with a family who moved to the West, and it dealt with Navajo and Pueblo people. The author wove in history, and I found that fascinating.”
From there, Atcheson said he began to like history and aspired to be a teacher like Mrs. Williams.
That passion stayed with Atcheson and influenced his decision to major in history at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he met Martin Gallant, who was then a residential hall director while Atcheson was living on campus.
“On campus, he always had a certain air about him,” Gallant said of Atcheson. “We would call him ‘senator.’ He loved that. We’d say ‘Hello, senator,’ and he would respond, ‘Hello,’ and walk by. That was just Ken. He’s been that way since high school, and it fits for being a social studies teacher.”
Atcheson also drew inspiration from his professors at UMPI, adding that they went beyond simply teaching dates and names.
“They brought in the personal aspects of historic individuals,” Atcheson said. “They discussed their foibles, the good, and bad, and made it come alive. I’ve always tried to do that — not just teach the American Revolution or the progressive period, but show that this is what real people did, that they were real human beings.”
Atcheson graduated from UMPI in 1979, and began his career as an educator just a few months later in Lubec. For seven years, he taught social studies, mathematics, and acted as the National Honor Society and junior class adviser at the high school there.
“I greatly enjoyed it,” Atcheson said. “[Lubec] was a nice community and they were wonderful to me,” adding, however, that the town “had a lot of socio-economic problems, no question.”
Atcheson estimates that he has taught roughly 4,500 students throughout his career. Despite this, he still remembers many of their names and faces, and recalled his experience with Scott Bennett, a student in Lubec who left a particularly lasting impression.
“He was a hellion,” Atcheson said of his first encounter with Bennett, “no way around it. I told him, ‘One day I’m going to break you. I’m going to make you into a better person, even if it kills me.’”
Bennett had a “tough background,” according to Atcheson, who said his parents both passed away when he was very young, and that he was subsequently raised by his sister, aunt and uncle.
“I helped him, and he eventually learned a lot,” Atcheson said. “He needed to improve his chemistry grades after graduating, so he went to the University of Maine at Machias and then transferred to the Maine Maritime Academy.”
When graduation arrived, Bennett got in touch with Atcheson, asking if he would attend. Ken agreed, and even though he was teaching in Caribou at the time, drove over 200 miles to see his former student’s ceremony.
On his way to the quad, Atcheson was impressed with the maritime cadets sporting white uniforms and swords. When he entered the building where he was headed, three cadets approached him and asked if he was Mr. Atcheson. They then instructed him to follow them to a large hall.
“And there was Scott,” Atcheson recalled. “He was all dressed up, and he had these gold stars above the pocket of his blouse. He told me they were for all the times he’d made the Commandant’s List.”
Bennett’s uncle, with a hulking video camera on his shoulder, asked Atcheson to stand in front of the camera.
“[Scott] stood next to me while we were in front of the camera,” Atcheson said. “He pointed to me, looked into the camera, and said, ‘He’s why I’m graduating. Thank you Mr. Atcheson.”
Atcheson and his wife Judy decided in 1986 to move from Lubec back to The County to be closer to their parents.
That August, Atcheson began teaching at Caribou High School, moving into a classroom on the second floor and staying there for over 30 years. In the last month or so, he and his students have been taking down the posters, pictures, and plaques that he had been putting up since 1986.
“My students say it echoes in here now,” Atcheson said on Nov. 15 during an interview in his classroom. “They don’t like it, and I don’t like it. I always used to put lots of things up, and it’s taken a while to pack.”
Atcheson doesn’t believe the students are different now than they were in 1986. Over thirty years, the most significant change Atcheson has seen in Caribou is the decline in population.
“There were seven and a half social studies teachers when I came here,” he said. “Now there are four. “The student body is smaller, and there are more requirements and mandates from the state, not all of which I feel are necessarily good.”
Atcheson said he’s never had a problem with discipline, and tells students on their first day that everything they need to know about his mood can be determined from the position of his glasses.
“If the glasses are on, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world,” he said, reciting the speech he gives first-day students. “If the glasses come down, you have approached a line in the desert you should not cross. If they come off, the angels in the firmament of God’s inestimable glory will weep for your mortal soul, burning in Dante’s seventh level of Hell. And I mean it.”
While recalling the speech, Atcheson realized this year would be the last time he gives it.
“I guess I won’t be telling them this anymore,” he said.
The speech is effective, as Atcheson said he hasn’t taken his glasses off many times over the years, however, they have come down a few times.
CHS Senior and National Honor Society President Meagan Dube remembered hearing the glasses speech during her first class with him as a sophomore.
“He goes through the stages of when he’s angry,” she said, “When the glasses are on, you’re OK, the tip of his nose is a warning, and if they come off, you’re done for.”
After spending a few years teaching in Caribou, Atcheson studied for his master’s degree at the University of Maine at Orono, where he focused on the Holocaust. He also went abroad for his studies, traveling to Poland, where he spent time studying the genocide and factors that led to it.
“What interested me was, ‘Why?’” He said of the Holocaust. “How could a nation with the finest educational system in the world sink into the depths of depravity that they did? This wasn’t a little cadre of radical nazis. This was organized on a scale like nothing had ever existed before; it had military priority. It just boggled my mind as to how people could go from believing that another person is a human being to thinking that they’re not a person.”
When explaining the Holocaust to his students, Atcheson said he asks them to imagine sitting out on a deck chair during the summer and swatting a mosquito on their wrist.
“You don’t think, ‘Did it have a mother? Did it have children?’” He said. “You just think it’s a mosquito and it doesn’t mean anything. These people went after other individuals they didn’t think of as people.”
After earning his master’s degree in 1993, Atcheson returned to teaching with a renewed vigor to ensure that his students learn from history and not be condemned to repeat such tragic mistakes of the past.
“It is our responsibility to make sure that never happens again,” he said. “I stress to my students that they should never think they’re superior or inferior to anyone. You might be in my room, under my authority, but you are not inferior to me, and I’m not superior to you. You are your brother’s keeper. And whoever your brother is, is not relegated to race, religion, language, or culture. We are all human beings.”
Current students and faculty at Caribou High School say Atcheson goes beyond simply teaching facts, and that he works hard to make students feel comfortable in the classroom.
“You could really tell he loved what he was doing,” said Dube. “He wants to make you feel like you are home and you can be who you are; he reiterated that a lot in his classes. He makes sure students are comfortable with who they are in his classroom.”
Shannon Sleeper, an English teacher who also works as a National Honor Society adviser, said Atcheson’s relationship with students goes “beyond the four walls of the classroom.”
“He’s always traveling to see students graduate from college,” Sleeper said. “He’ll drive down to Portland and back in a day just to attend a ceremony, just to let students know he thinks they matter. Students [after graduating] want to come and talk to him, share their stories, and give him credit for being a part of their success. That speaks volumes for the impact he’s had on students for many, many years.”
Caribou High School Principal Travis Barnes, who was once one of Atcheson’s students, also applauded his ability to connect with his class.
“He recognizes that relationships are what makes or breaks a classroom,” Barnes said. “He does a good job building relationships and bonds that transcend what he teaches.”
Gallant, who came to Caribou High School just a few years before Atcheson as a guidance counselor, agreed that Atcheson is a “very well-loved” teacher.
“In the guidance office, kids would come down, and you filter what they say about teachers,” Gallant said, “and I can’t remember a time when someone said they wanted out of his class.”
“He was not only a teacher of history,” Dube said, “but also a life teacher. He made sure he gave you the content, but also wanted to give you a life lesson, and that’s why he was a great, great teacher. He cared about what he was teaching, and he cared more about the students.”
After looking back on over four decades of teaching, Atcheson said,“It feels like it went extremely quickly.”
“There’s an old saying that if you’re a teacher, by your students you will be taught,” he said, “and I have been taught a great many things. I’ve had a wonderful career and I can’t thank the amazing people I worked with at Caribou High School and Lubec enough.”
In addition to teaching history and advising the National Honor Society, Atcheson was an adviser to the Caribou High School French Club and to the Class of 1995.
“I adored that class,” he said. “We had so much fun, and I still keep in contact with a tremendous amount of them.”
One of the members of that class was Jessica Meir, is a NASA astronaut, for whom he recalled writing a recommendation when she applied to Brown University.
Sleeper, who first met Atcheson through the NHS in 2008 when she was an adviser for her oldest son, was impressed by his dedication to the organization’s events, particularly the November induction ceremony, which begins with a full course meal in the school cafeteria.
“We’ve worked on inductions together,” Sleeper said, “and I’ve joked with him that he puts on a wedding reception every November, because it’s a huge event. I can’t think of an induction at any other high school that can compare to what he has put on for the past 14 years. The students see that and are aware that they’re part of something special. It’s a monumental experience.”
She also commented on his willingness to take student suggestions and see them through, citing the Alumni Hall of Fame and the End Hunger NE food drive as two recent examples.
“Students had the idea and he made it happen,” Sleeper said. “We raised $6,000 with 25 students [for the food drive] and it was because of him. He didn’t tell them adding another event would be too much; he just wanted to help them fulfill their goals, and had the fortitude and determination to make it happen for them.”
These traits contributed to one of Dube’s favorite memories of working with Atcheson in the National Honor Society.
“The power went out at our NHS Christmas party last year,” she said. “He always reads the same book during the party, and this time he wore a headlamp so he could read the book. It’s one of my favorite memories, because all you could see was his face, with a headlamp, and the book.”
Atcheson has seniority over all staff at Caribou High School, and said he has seen every single teacher and staff member come in, and has taught many of them.
Barnes said his perception of Atcheson hasn’t changed now that he’s moved from being a student to a colleague, adding that his impact as a teacher is recognized throughout the region.
“I was at a meeting with other principals in Aroostook County after news got out of his cancer,” Barnes said. “One principal told me, ‘That’s Mr. CHS retiring,’ and when you think about it, it’s true. Ken is visible to kids here every day, at Performing Arts Center, the athletic field, and throughout the community, so that comment hit home for me.”
Dube’s reaction to Atcheson’s retirement was bittersweet.
“I knew it was for the better, because of his cancer, and he’ll be able to spend more time with his granddaughter,” Dube said. “Granted, I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to spend the rest of the year with him, but I knew it was better for him, the kids he’s teaching, as well as for his own health.”
Atcheson said his granddaughter, who was born on July 25, is “the best medicine God ever made.”
“I adore helping take care of her,” he said. “I’m going to get to go home, and most mornings when my little granddaughter arrives, she will get to be rocked to sleep by her grandfather, and I think I can do that.”
“He’s a pretty strong guy,” Gallant said, “and his faith is important to him. He has a wonderful family, and I know how the impact of a grandchild enriches your life. We’ll be missing a great teacher, and I wish him the very best. He’ll be in my thoughts and prayers. ”
“He will absolutely be missed,” Sleeper said. “I don’t know if there’s another ‘Mr. CHS’ out there,” adding that she will be temporarily taking his place as NHS adviser and “try to measure up in some way.”
Atcheson said that he will come back for special activities and that he will help with graduation and other events if he is able.
“On the very worst days,” he said, “this is still a great place. I’m proud of this school, and I’m proud I went to Woodland for elementary school.”
During those bad days, he said he only needs to reflect on the time he spent with more than 4,500 students over 40 years.
“When things get a little bad or something isn’t going right,” he said, “I think back on some of those times, and about those kids. Maybe I got some of them through it, but they all got me through it.”