By Gus Saltonstall
The year Marvin Terban walked into Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School on West 93rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue for his new teaching job, John F. Kennedy was president, a newly emerging singer named Little Stevie Wonder had a hit at the top of the charts, and nobody had ever walked on the moon.
More than 60 years later, Mr. Terban, as he is known to his students, is still walking through those same doors. He had applied for a teaching position at Columbia Grammar in 1963, in the lead-up to his graduation from a master’s program at Columbia University. He began as a fifth and sixth-grade teacher, which makes his first middle-school students now 72 years old! He was earning $4,400 a year.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said, with a smile about that first year.
As time progressed, Mr. Terban, now 83, moved through different roles within the school, teaching in all three age divisions, subjects ranging from English to history to filmmaking. He directed the school’s theater productions and was its first computer teacher when the new machines arrived in 1984.
Mr. Terban shifted to Latin after the former instructor abruptly left in the early 1970s, and the headmaster put out a call for staff members who knew the language. Mr. Terban said he had taken it in high school, and that was enough to land him the position. Last year, Columbia Grammar created The Marvin Terban Latin Award for the top senior scholar in the subject.
“Mr. Terban is very funny,” Harris Lenez, ‘22, the inaugural recipient of the prize, told West Side Rag. “By thinking about these quirks of grammar, Mr. Terban would make humor part of the way we learned.” Early in his career, he took to livening up his lessons by devising homonym riddles (same spelling, different meaning) to help students understand grammar. Those lessons eventually inspired him to write 40 books, three of which sold more than a million copies.
“He can retire whenever he wants, but he loves this school, and we love him,” Sammy G., a student in the class of ‘29, told the Rag.
“You can retire and be so sorry you did it,” Mr. Terban said. “I don’t want to do that. I love going into work every morning – I don’t even like the summer!”
“If you have a really good job that you love doing, it would be a mistake to look for something else,” the longtime teacher added.
Right behind Mr. Terban’s 60 years at the school is his 58-year marriage to his wife Karen.
“A teacher came to me in the faculty room in 1965 and said, ‘I know a girl and you and she would get along beautifully,” Mr. Terban recalled. Initially, he admits pushing back against the idea since she lived in Brooklyn. “I said no, that’s geographically unobtainable.” They overcame the distance.
Both of the Terban’s children went to Columbia Grammar.
As the decades have passed, former students have sent their own kids back to Columbia Grammar Preparatory School to learn from Mr. Terban.
“When he speaks of the school, you feel the love that he has for these buildings and the people in them,” Ariel Gordon, a former student and current parent, told the Rag.
At the end of the day, Mr. Terban just wants people to think of him as somebody who helped.
“I want people to think, ‘He was a nice guy,’” he said before pausing. “Why am I putting it in the past tense? ‘He is a nice guy and he’s helpful, and you can go to him, ask him for a favor, and he’ll try his best to do it.’”
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