Tom Neiman
Tom Neiman

Keep it interesting and keep it fun

You might have read that Tom Neiman, creator of the Southwest Community Education Program, is retiring.

Almost everyone calls him Neiman. He has outlasted six or eight (I’ve lost count) Minneapolis Public Schools superintendents and countless administrative types, none of who could match his staying and schmoozing power and uninterrupted success at enriching the minds and hearts of thousands of Twin City kids (and grownups) over four decades.

In a profession where the search for a better way is swayed by pendulum swings, spiffy acronyms and the reinvention of the same ol’ wheel, Neiman’s approach to education has always been consistent and simple: Kids learn better when they play. Teachers teach better when they teach what they love. So keep it interesting, and keep it fun. Learning will follow.

On any summer day since 1983, you could walk into Southwest High School, where his Super Summer Program lives (for what seems like forever and will continue to) and become immersed in a world of happy campers, literally: kids learning woodworking, chess and cooking, writing poetry, stumbling over their French, wrestling with math puzzles, rehearsing plays, playing Quidditch or hiking down the block to the lake to catch and toss back a sunfish or two.

And there in the middle of it all was Neiman, wearing some funny getup at the microphone and welcoming the kids (by name!) along with their astonished parents, who barely believed their children were getting this kind of bang for their buck for a whole day. A whole summer!

And what an eclectic array of classes!
How about Mock Trials: It’s the Law in the morning and Fishing – Minnows and Muskies in the afternoon? Or Dinosaurs: Dig Those Dinos after breakfast and How to be a Private Detective after lunch? And the next week? Try Room and Locker Décor and Harry Potter Adventures.

And all of this for how much? That’s all? Are you kidding me?

Not uncommon was it to hear a parent victoriously proclaiming to another that Neiman’s Super Summer Camp was way more educational, inspiring and wondrous than the neighbor kid’s daily two-hour bus schlep to and from Lake Whatever Day Camp. And for how much?

But that’s not all. Neiman’s Adult Community Education Program has been just as right brain/left brain-friendly for us oldsters.

Renowned since the ’70s (that’s right, the ’70s) for its plethora of courses taught by professionals and lay people like you and me, the evening classes, just like the kid versions, have always been predicated on Neiman’s uncompromising premise: Keep it interesting and keep it fun.

So, to get to your classroom, you sometimes zigzagged through an onslaught of puppies and proud but sheepish owners in the main hallway during Puppy Training 1, or maybe you just wanted a cup of hot apple cider and a cookie on your way to Henna (Learn to mix, design and apply henna), or for those so inclined, Chair Caning.

And always, there was Neiman, donned in his more business-like attire (apropos for the evening adult crowd) that never – ever — changed over the decades: a polyester, wide- collar dress shirt and a mismatched ’70s-era wide tie, not even close to reaching his belt buckle.

I’m pretty sure he was wearing the maroon paisley that one day in ’74 when, as a fledging, newbie teacher, I asked him for a job in his program, and he gave me one, along with that ubiquitous cup of apple cider and prescription for success: “Make it interesting, and make it fun.”

That was 1974. It’s 2016. Neiman has stood the test of time, circumvented the trendy demands for innovation and change (but not without a skirmish or two along the way) and held on tightly to his simple but not-so-easy-to-achieve expectation: There must be joy in learning.

No one knows this better than the thousands of kids who passed through his program and their parents who long ago were those kids — all of them, simply, Neiman’s kids.

Spend time in any school and you’ll probably agree that change is inevitable and sometimes necessary, but here, in the world according to Neiman, not trying to fix what never broke has made all the difference.

Well done, Neiman.

Dick Schwartz is the former International Baccalaureate coordinator at Southwest High School and colleague of Tom Neiman.