When I Was 17: Mr. Okin

William Okin, one of Thacher’s most beloved teachers, has an undeniable influence in the classroom and on the Gymkhana field. Yet, the character we know him as today contrasts starkly with his high school self. Yao Yin ’19 took the time to interview Mr. Okin and share his thoughts with the community.

Q: Where did you go to school when you were 17?

A: I went to a public high school called Manual high school in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up. I graduated in 1988. There were 1200 students in the school. I read an article about 10 years ago in the New Yorker Magazine, that was titled, “The Worst High School in America”. By the second paragraph, I realized that they were talking about my high school! This was about 20 years after I graduated, so it was a different school entirely, but still, it was surprising. In the 80’s Manual was an interesting school from the point of view that it was called a “magnet school.” There was a lot of segregation in the Denver Public Schools because the school districts were based on neighborhoods that weren’t very diverse, and the high schools reflected that. In the “desegregation” movement the city bussed kids to different neighborhoods in order to create diversity. So my high school was all the way across town from my house. They also hired really good teachers and put programs in place to get kids to voluntarily leave their district to come there. It was the only school in Denver with open enrollment. At the time, it was actually the best school in the Denver Public School system. But a lot changed in 20 years…

Q: Were you a good student? How were you involved in school activities?

A: I was basically a LAX bro. Hard to imagine right… We were state champions in Lacrosse for 3 years when I was in high school. I played midfield on the team… I was not a nerd, or at least I was intentionally trying so hard not to be a nerd. Secretly I was I nerd, but I was pretending not to be one. I just wanted to be a cool LAX bro. I did like math, just because it was always fairly easy for me compared to other humanities subjects or language. English was much harder for me. They didn’t have computer science in my school, so I did programming on my own— back then it was BASIC or Pascal. I had an Apple II Plus computer that I played video games on.

Q: What were you like outside of school?

A: I watched MTV a lot. I did like music too, Led Zeppelin was probably the favorite. And I skied every weekend. I also dressed kind of preppy. And I played tennis. And went to a lot of parties.

Q: Did you consider becoming a teacher back then?

A: No. It really never occurred to me.

Q: What were your career/life dreams in high school?

A: I was not thinking about my career. The one thing I wanted to do, that I was pretty sure about, was to make a lot of money. [chuckle] My senior quote, I remember, was a Pink Floyd quote: “New car, caviar, four-star daydreams.” That was from the Pink Floyd song Money. I was a total materialist.

Q: Were you interested in Buddhism/Meditation back then?

A: No, I wish I had been. But I wasn’t. No one introduced me to it. I started to get interested when I was 25 and in graduate school in UCSB. That was when life got really difficult for me and I had to search for meaning in a different way. I did take some religion classes in college, which kind of got the ball rolling. I contemplated maybe becoming a Muslim for a while. I felt a strong spiritual yearning and didn’t really find a way to express it or explore until later.

Q: High School Romances?

A: Well, yes, I was (and still am) what you would call a serial monogamist. I always like having a girlfriend. My first serious girlfriend was named Brooke. I was so in love with her. She had red hair, and we were together for 2 years, starting like fall of my sophomore year. We were like one of the couples that people talk about. We went to prom and all the dances together, we hung out after school, we left notes for each other. It’s embarrassing. Cady was my girlfriend senior year, C-A-D-Y. We dated through Freshman year in college. But  I was a typical highschool boy, you know. Looking back, I’m surprised those girls would have anything to do with me.

Q: Advice for current students?

A: Don’t give yourself such a hard time, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you (although you could use a little improvement), and don’t care what other people think. Sleep more. Eat less sugar. Don’t believe everything you think or everything you hear. You only need two or three really good friends that know you really well and who you know well. Then you can rely on each other. And everyone else, you can be friends with them too, you know, but friendship is really about quality, not quantity.