The Gift Of Inspiration

by Doris Huang, submitted to

This article was published by Doris Huang, one of Cory’s high school students, who went on to graduate at Harvard. Doris was statistically the top academic student in Pinewood School’s twenty year history; she matched this with a reputation as Pinewood’s symbol of class and character. People sometimes ask Cory why he still loves to teach and coach and doesn’t just make recordings and play shows. This is why — to connect with great young people who care, who matter, and who will go out and make the world a better place.

He stood up there at the front of the classroom, grinning rather ridiculously back at us fifteen high school freshmen effectively scared to death by this strange new teacher. “OK, kiddies,” he boomed, “welcome to Music History. Before I can torture you, I need to know who you are. So sign your names – if you dare! [here he cackled a bit] – on this seating chart that I’m passing around right now.”

I glanced over the shoulder of my friend Mori, who was sitting next to me, at the chart that he was referring to. On the piece of white computer paper were drawn fifteen little boxes to represent the fifteen desks in the room, in addition to a crude stick-figure sketch of himself wearing a black-and-white striped prisoner’s outfit. Across the top were the words “Welcome to the Jailhouse!!!”

I began to worry a bit about his sanity.

“He” is Mr. Cory Cullinan, the Stanford grad, soccer aficionado and music zealot who came to take my high school by storm a few years ago. I had heard all the rumors and stories about him from my classmates – he had the kookiest sense of humor, he was shamelessly bold, he could turn anything you said in all seriousness into the corniest joke. So it was with the greatest anxiety and curiosity that I sat that day in his class for the first time.

“In order to get to know you all better,” Mr. Cullinan continued, “here’s a little survey that I want you to fill out honestly and completely.” I skimmed the list of typed-up questions that we had to answer: What’s your name? What kinds of music do you like to listen to? Do you play any musical instruments? Do you write music? Do you dance like a funkomatic maniac? (What?? Oh dear . . . .)

The twisted humor and carefree “let’s just have some fun” attitude continued through the rest of the semester. I came to accept and even enjoy the way Mr. Cullinan – or Mr. C, as he is more affectionately known – never failed to seamlessly blend insightful note-taking and lectures with his absolutely one-of-a-kind puns and wisecracks. (Once when we were studying a song by the band The Barenaked Ladies, Mr. C commented with his trademark grin, “Based on the name of the band, I was disappointed when I saw them live that they didn’t live up to their visual potential.” How many people would ever say something like that??)

Even the final exam for his class could not be entirely serious. In the fill-in-the-blank section of the test, Mr. C first asked for the four basic families of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The very next question he asked was, “More importantly, what are the four basic food groups? Have you eaten at least one item from each food group today?” And yes, he had his pen ready and poised to deduct points for wrong answers to those questions.

One day in class he decided to tell us a story. When he was a sophomore at the local high school, his older brother was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Instead of fighting his fate or acting selfishly and demanding attention in the last few months of his life, Mr. C’s brother bravely accepted reality and continued to live his life just as fully as he had before. When his brother passed away, Mr. C vowed to live his own life to the fullest as a sort of memorial to his brother’s constancy and courage.

In the midst of the mourning, Mr. C’s father, who had at one time served as mayor of his hometown, began to blame himself for his son’s disease and subsequent decease. The depression that ensued eventually drove him to suicide. He drove his car out one day and shot himself.

Needless to say we students were all stunned to hear the story of Mr. C’s family. How was it that this man, who had suffered such unimaginable trauma as a teenager and who had lost half his immediate family within a year or two, was now one of the most visible and vibrant teachers on campus, one who single-handedly fashioned a revitalized music department including music history classes, a choir group, and an electronic music group that created and recorded its own CD? How was it that this man had a literally boundless store of energy and good humor? How was it that this man not only survived, but prevailed?

I have had the privilege of being taught by Mr. Cullinan for two full semesters during my freshman and sophomore years at my high school. I still find it next to impossible to imagine just how much stamina and willpower and strength Mr. C commands; I have so much respect for him. In my mind, a hero is not necessarily someone who has saved my life, or rescued me from danger, or radically changed my life. Mr. C is a hero simply because he has given me, however unintentionally, the gift of inspiration. I can only aspire to simulate his remarkable qualities in my own life; but I shall try.