Jamie Kapteyn: gifted teacher, mentor, friend

The following post regards the sudden death of a special person to my family — and to many others whose lives he touched. A special note to those who may have found this post via an Internet search: This link will take you to information on the Deerfield Academy website about memorial services and ways in which Mr. Kapteyn can be honored and condolences extended to his family. Also, a group has been set up on Facebook, In Memory of James Kapteyn, that contains many wonderful memories, expressions of condolences and photos from students and friends of Mr. Kapteyn.]

Last year, my son was a freshman at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. His resident adviser — his mentor and friend and father of the faculty family who lived in quarters adjacent to my son’s dorm hall — was one of the most gifted teachers I have ever known, James C. (Jamie) Kapteyn.

My wife and I had been hopeful that our son would end up on Mr. Kapteyn’s hall as we had grown to appreciate him over the three previous years during which he’d taught english and literature to our (now college freshman) daughter. He was, for her, one of those special teachers who light a spark of passion for a subject that leads to a lifetime of study and appreciation. My wife and I sat in on Mr. Kapteyn’s classes on a couple of occasions and marveled at his skill at opening his students’ minds and eyes and hearts.

As he had spent many years as a teacher, coach and resident adviser — and was the father of a daughter who is a classmate of our son — my wife and I turned often to him for insight into the minds of teenagers — especially on those several occasions when our understanding came to a sudden brick wall of that species known as “15-year-old boy.” Mr. Kapteyn’s wise, reasoned, concerned advice never failed to calm us, or reassure us, or inspire us. In hindsight, he was always right.

Last night, my wife and I wept together with our son who called to inform us that Mr. Kapteyn had passed away unexpectedly earlier in the evening after collapsing while playing soccer with some faculty friends. He was in his mid-40s.

My wife or I did not attend boarding schools, but we’ve learned a lot about them — or at least one of them — over the past five years. When the students’ interactions with teachers (and their families) extend beyond the classroom into the dining hall for three meals each day, and onto the playing fields for sports, and into the evenings for study halls and academic (and life) advising and a whole myriad of clubs and projects — it creates a unique and close community bond, a family. The joys of one become the joys of many. And when the loss of one so loved occurs, it is the loss of a cherished member of a very large and extended family. And the entire family mourns.

Today, the Deerfield community is in shock. I know that my son and all the other boys who have ever been in Field (the “dorm” [house] name) with Mr. Kapteyn and his wife are mourning deeply the loss of their mentor and friend. After talking with him on the phone last night, I sent my son and daughter an e-mail and decided to post a portion of it here:

Going through this sad experience with your friends and all of the people who loved Mr. Kapteyn so much is going to be a very tough thing to do. But you will pull together and your sense of loss will be be shared also with a sense of appreciation for all that Mr. Kaptyn was and all he did for you.

I’m sitting here thinking of all the lives Mr. Kapetyn touched — his students, their parents, the boys who he advised and mentored on his hall, the players he coached. It is a very sad and terrible thing to lose someone you love and appreciate so much as Mr. Kaptyn. Along with our grieving, I know we will be honoring him, as well. For his was a life to celebrate. He was so gifted as a teacher and he was able to share that gift at such a wonderful place as Deerfield. He loved what he did — and was so loved by those with whom he came into contact. That is a special, unique thing to have in ones life.

This weekend, my wife and daughter (who finished her first semester exams today and is flying home from Scotland) will travel to Deerfield to express personally our family’s respect and appreciation for Jamie Kapteyn, to extend our condolences to his wife and two wonderful daughters and to honor and celebrate his life of not only teaching, but inspiring young people in so many ways.

We also want to hug tightly our 16 year-old son (and brother).