It Was an Honor to Know You: A Loving Tribute to Uncle Marvin
This week marks the passing of an unsung hero in the field of emotional intelligence, Marvin Maurer. “Uncle Marvin,” as he was fondly known by most, was mentor and uncle to Marc Brackett, PhD, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The earliest seeds of an emotional curriculum sprouted, in part, from their longstanding relationship and their frequent conversations about feelings.
Marvin was born in the Bronx, and as a young boy had vivid fantasies about a “bigger life”—as a leader, a star, or even a superhero. “I was extremely insecure,” he told Robin Stern, PhD, associate director at the Center, who interviewed him over the past year. “My confidence and my dreams were built in opposition to my insecurity. I would fantasize on a fairly regular basis and picture myself in successful venues.” Before there was a Mood Meter, Marvin knew how to shift his mood from the blue, to the green and yellow, and before there was the Meta Moment, Marvin was visualizing his best self.
Marvin had a gift for music and wanted, more than anything, to play the trumpet. He remembered his trumpet teacher as his first real mentor and a model of what a great teacher could be. Marvin remembered, “He was gentle and kind and always tried to maximize my talent.”
Marvin took his lessons in a small apartment that faced Grand Concourse in the Bronx. He remembered how he would knock on his teacher’s door—usually there was another student taking a lesson—and he would let himself in and start warming up. “Then, when the teacher was ready, I would sit down with my back was to the window and he would sit down next to me.” Marvin lovingly described a teacher who was deeply connected to his students: His teacher would compliment him, smile warmly, and give him helpful—and very specific—comments and strategies when his playing was “off.” He encouraged Marvin to be the best he could be.
A few decades later, Marvin was an acclaimed trumpet player and consummate entertainer at the Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake, New York, at a time when the resort was the vacation spot for big band music. He was band leader for every Monday Mambo Night, he sang, and he was famous for playing the trumpet with only one hand. Yet, according to his beloved wife Phyllis, “he never thought he was as good as other people thought he was, but he was very popular for so many years.” He loved music, and he “owned” the stage, smiling and greeting guests with a twinkle in his eye and a snappy comment.
Tragically, a car accident made it impossible for Marvin to continue to play the trumpet, and so he turned his attention to education. He had strong ideas about teaching and what it meant to be a great teacher. He thought it was important for young people to know themselves as much as they would know their subjects, skills he thought were critical to developing one’s potential and to prevent “getting screwed up.” He began to connect the historical events in his lessons to students’ feelings about their own lives. He wanted children to feel what Roman leaders might have felt or the feelings scientists had while making new discoveries. He worked out an approach he called “Little People’s Feelings” which would later inspire RULER’s Feeling Words Curriculum. He told his wife Phyllis, “Just give me any child and I will help him to learn and to know himself.” Indeed, he reached hundreds of kids and ignited their flames of learning.
Making curriculum emotionally relevant to students made Marvin a maverick in his upstate New York school in the 1970s, a time when, coincidentally, the feelings of young people were rocking the nation. At the same time, he was a threatening presence for other educators who didn’t understand the relevance of emotions in the classroom. As a result, his tenure at the school was cut short. But his passion for incorporating feelings into schools was just beginning.
Marvin continued to be enraged about the state of childhood in America. “I was—and am—upset, angry, frustrated about what is going on with kids in America today. Kids are growing up alone,” he told Robin. “They are more freaked out. Maybe I am projecting, but I think kids must have a lot of pain.”
He also yearned to ignite emotional connections between teacher and student, and ultimately he found that connection most deeply with his prized student, his nephew Marc, whom he also considered his best friend.
Marvin engaged Marc in his work when Marc was still in middle school, trying out his lessons to determine if they would be relevant and engaging in his classroom. Later, when Marc was in graduate school, they spoke philosophically about an education in emotions. When they came together, usually at a Barnes and Noble café, Marvin wrote little phrases like, “a word is a world,” and “we have to be responsive to students,” and, “we are responsible for the language we use.” Gradually the conversation became more pragmatic, and they developed the first formal iteration of the Feeling Words Curriculum. Marvin recalled agonizing days and weeks when they were creating and critiquing the dozens of lessons that comprised the first Feeling Words Curriculum. This year marks the tenth anniversary of their first book, Emotional Literacy in the Middle School.
Marvin believed fervently that the day would come when the general public would understand that emotions are an important part of an education. Looking back on the process—perhaps through the show biz lens—he reflected with a smile that perhaps he was the “creator” and Marc was the “producer” of a new kind of education. Thinking about the impact of their collaboration, starting so many years ago, made him optimistic for the future of education.
Uncle Marvin, before there were papers and books on emotional intelligence, before there was a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, you knew how deeply emotions matter—to children and to adults.
We thank you for all you have given us. We have been blessed to know you. We’ve been enriched by your ideas and inspired by your mission. We will miss you dearly and will always carry you in our hearts and minds. And we will honor your spirit, compassion, and dedication in all that we do.
Uncle Marvin, you are a leader, a star, and our superhero.
Robin Stern, Ph.D. Associate Director
Diana Divecha, Ph.D. Research Affiliate
Susan Rivers, Ph.D. Deputy Director