The Dean with an American Dream
In honor of Mike McLaren (July 25, 1958 - December 21st, 2020)
BEEP. Teachers and students at Pope John Paul II High School pause to the sound of the school intercom. A shrill voice follows.
“Justin White, please meet Mr. McLaren in his office immediately.”
Justin’s eyes widen in fear as he slowly lowers his pencil and stands from his desk.
It doesn’t matter whose name is called to McLaren’s office – the rest of the student body knows the drill. We indiscreetly stare. We part the hallway for the student’s walk of shame. Our whispers ripple through the hallways, seeping into and out of classrooms like a positive feedback loop.
Being called to McLaren’s office over the school intercom is every student’s worst nightmare. A former British airman, McLaren towers at 6’5 with a firm rectangular face, short and fine grey hair, and an intense gaze. Since the school’s opening in 2002, every student has known his name. He serves as both a history teacher and the Dean of Students, which means that all disciplinary actions go through him. Fittingly, he has eyes all over the school.
“It’s easy to get the vibe of this terrifying man,” fellow JPII teacher Mr. Mauthe admitted. “His sharp accent, his intimidating height, his intense posture. For the longest time, I assumed he really was as intense as he seemed to be.”
I had the same assumption on my first day in McLaren’s AP European History class. I stumbled into the classroom, anxious to meet The Mr. McLaren. An intimidating wall of whiteboards was crammed with notes of small font size and minimal margin. As soon as McLaren started speaking, we entered hyperspace. He paced the room as he taught, making large animated gestures to emphasize his points. He probed the class with questions. He challenged students’ responses. He cursed at the projector when it didn’t turn on (He identifies as a Luddite). He even fit in one of his famously dramatic digressions of boarding school stories.
As I listened to McLaren teach, I began to understand why students loved to feature him in senior skits, often pretending to terrorize students throughout campus. In Mr. Mauthe’s words, McLaren “pretends to be all bluster and anger, but also genuinely cares about his students and his teaching.”
After sitting down with McLaren to talk, I learned that there was a whole other side to him that the student body rarely gets to see. He once wanted to be a Norwegian lumberjack; one of his favorite bands is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (an American country music band popular in the late 60s); deep down, he has a rebellious side.
I'll be waitin' on the hillside where the wild red roses grow
On the sunny side of the mountains where the ripplin’ waters fall.
“Sunny Side of the Mountain” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
MIKE MCLAREN was born in Oldenburg in Holstein, a small town on the northern coast of Germany. His mother came from an upper class German family and was a survivor of WWII. For ten years, she lived in a refugee camp, where she met his father, a British military policeman who came from a working class Scottish family. With delight, he told me that his father would set off the fire alarms so that his mother would come out to meet him.
McLaren defied norms from the moment he was born. At twelve pounds four ounces, he received the certificate for being the biggest baby born in his town for the past twenty years. By the age of three, he was eye level with seven-year-olds. The doctors thought he had gigantism and predicted that he would grow to be 7’4. McLaren proved them wrong and stopped growing at sixteen years old. Still, throughout his childhood, he would throw fits. “How’s the weather up there?” his classmates would mock. He responded by shoving them into trash bins.
McLaren went through multiple phases as a teenager. He rotated through high-waisted bell bottoms paired with big collared tartan shirts, long hair, and 6-inch platform shoes. He then transitioned to punk rock, wearing chef jackets with straight-leg jeans that had chains linked from each leg. To top it off, he rocked a fifteen-inch purple and green mohawk with Oxford Blood Red Doc Marten boots.
“I was so attracted to the idea of hippies and rebellion,” he said. “When you’re an army brat, you’re always looking for somewhere to belong.”
This sense of belonging, paired with his athletic strength, drove him to play nine different sports in high school, including soccer and rugby. Outside of the field and classroom, he loved reading Louis L’Amour and other American Western novels. He began writing his own short stories about Western characters and dreamed of someday moving to America.
In 1974, McLaren witnessed a group of Nazis marching through the town while attending school in West Germany – a moment he says impacted him for life. They had come from Bergen-Belsen, the nearby concentration camp. In response, his history teacher, who wasn’t supposed to show affiliations, immediately stopped class and went off-curriculum to educate students about the Holocaust and the threat of Nazism. It was here, where McLaren was first exposed to primary source documents. He was taught how to interpret these sources in context and use them to construct an argument– skills that he now loves to teach to his AP Euro students.
Following high school, McLaren moved to Norway. He first tried to become a lumberjack; however, internationals were not being hired in that industry, so he ended up working in an iron mine. Whenever he could, he would often escape to the Trondheim Fjord, which holds the only surviving Viking boat.
“Norway embodies the folklore and mythical nature of Viking sagas through its harsh topography and brutal weather,” he stated. He then told me that he used to pretend to be a Viking looking out onto the still waters ahead, the steep cliffs guiding the way.
For the next nine years, McLaren served in the British Royal Airforce, switching between stations scattered across Northern Europe. Even in such an ordered environment, he often found himself in trouble with his superiors. He kept posters of Che Guevara from the Cuban Revolution on his wall, and he drove a soviet-made Ural motorcycle all around his base. When given multiple opportunities to attend Officer’s Academy, he refused each time because he thought it was too elitist. Instead, he ventured to America in 1990 on a one-way plane ticket paid by the Airforce. He first worked as a YMCA fitness trainer with a dream of being a teacher. Within a couple of years, he had secured teaching positions, first at a residential psychiatric facility and then at multiple benedictine monasteries and preparatory schools.
Despite the disciplinary air about him, some students have still been bold enough to challenge him. One sunny day at Subiaco Academy, an all-boys Catholic boarding school in Subiaco, Arkansas, a group of seniors were playing football outside during lunch break. The bell rang, signaling for everyone to return to classes. To the faculty’s horror, the students refused to go inside. The fresh air, mixed with the power of numbers, combined to create a perfect cocktail for rebellion.
The school faculty rushed to McLaren, demanding that he stop the nonsense and expel everyone involved, but McLaren knew that rash expulsion was out of the question. He also knew that he risked losing his position of authority to a group of uncooperative teenagers. Without a clear solution, he set out to the field on foot. The students watched in anticipation as he approached the senior with the football. Without a word, McLaren seized the football, turned, and walked back to the school. The students soon followed.
Over the years, McLaren has evolved his approach as a dean. “When I first started,” he explained, “I was much more distant, like an army sergeant watching his recruits and making sure there is order everywhere… but [I realized] students don’t share things. They don’t share their vulnerabilities, they don’t share their fears, unless they trust you.”
I nodded. No doubt, his military background and quick intelligence helps him manage difficult situations, but it’s this trustworthiness that allows him to be an effective mentor. And perhaps it's his rebellious past that allows him to relate to students in a unique manner.
Mr. McLaren’s American Dream culminates with a retirement adventure on his BMW R 1200 GS motorcycle to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. He is independent and free. He is drawn to the mountains– perhaps he relates to them. He dreams to ride off to disappear among these snow-tipped giants overlooking brilliant blue waters and visceral forest scenes. Shouting out into the valley, his echoes will still be heard in JPII’s halls.