Zen and the Art of High School Philosophy

A chat with Mr. Lawson.

Mr. Lawson sits with a copy of the painting his wife Jill made to remember their time in Venice. Lawson explains he took the original picture and Jill used a paint scraper to create a detailed painting of a boat by a pier. He loved the painting so much he felt moved to bring it to school, and the copy now hangs straight across from his office.

Mr. Lawson sits with a copy of the painting his wife Jill made to remember their time in Venice. Lawson explains he took the original picture and Jill used a paint scraper to create a detailed painting of a boat by a pier. He loved the painting so much he felt moved to bring it to school, and the copy now hangs straight across from his office.

For 17 years Mr. Lawson has taught “Intro to Philosophy” – formerly “Man, Myth, and Magic” – at Cheyenne Mountain High School. This has made him the sole high school philosophy teacher in Colorado for a consecutive 17 years. But why take the time to meticulously piece together such a mature class for high school kids? 


I sat down with Mr. Lawson to answer this question and more.


What’s your name?

Larry Lawson. It’s actually Lawrence. My mom only calls me Lawrence when I’m in trouble, so 

I go by Larry.


What did you study in college?

I initially wanted to study photography, I didn’t want to go to college at all. But I ultimately went to Ft. Lewis College, and because of the professors I had, and the classes themselves, I fell in love with history and philosophy. I majored in history and minored in philosophy. My mom was a teacher, and I just wanted to teach with those majors and minors. I initially thought I’d do elementary school, but then I went to do some observation hours and thought “no go!” Eventually I made my way to high school and came back here to student teach and I’ve been here ever since.


What about philosophy sparked your interest?

They were some of the hardest classes I had ever taken. History came to me very easily because that was a story, and I come from a long line of storytellers. Philosophy courses were always the class I would leave going “what the heck?” And I would go back to my dorm room or just go sit in a park or hang out with the other philosophy students and just felt intrigued that something could linger with me so long. That I could mull it over and that it was also very practical. It’s an activity, we do philosophy. We do those thought experiments. They can be very useful in one’s life. I found it very practical but also very intriguing and very difficult. 


What is the philosophy by which you live your life?

I’m a big student of the stoics. They teach a lot of what has really become the basis of mindfulness today. One of the takeaways from that is you can’t change what is going to happen to you, you can only deal with it. I have that ability. I don’t know what you’re going to ask next, but how I respond to it, how thoughtful I am, is within my control. 


Who’s your favorite philosopher?

Three come to mind: Marcus Aurelius, who was a stoic, Friedrich Nietzsche, and French existentialist Albert Camus. Their writings just really speak to me, their philosophies challenged conventional thinking. Nietzsche was known as “the hammer” because he would come in and just smash conventional logic and shake people awake and make them think critically about the world they lived in. Aurelius was very practical in his approach, which I like better than some of the philosophers who would get really esoteric and very abstract. Abstract art, for example, is fine but I like paintings of tangible, realistic objects, kind of like the things in my life – it needs to be practical and useful. 


Why did you return to Cheyenne?

I was looking to do my student teaching, and I initially thought I’d stay in Durango, but my mom passed away during that time. So, coming back to the front range, my sister was in Boulder, my dad was here, and that was something I needed to do personally. I applied to many schools. But when Cheyenne called I thought “wow, that would be a trip to go back to my old highschool.” I believe everything happens for a reason, and it all just worked out.


What is your lyric of the week?

Weird Fishes by Radiohead.


Why should highschoolers study philosophy?

Hopefully as you’re getting a glimpse of it it’s teaching kids to think in a way they haven’t before. They’re getting exposed to some of the greatest minds, and I just can’t imagine getting through life without that exposure. I wish someone had taught philosophy when I went here. If you don’t take it in highschool, chances of encountering it in college are slim to none. At least here, they’re getting an introduction to it. What I’ve found over the 17 years I’ve been doing this is that it’s really sparked a lot of kids who still write me to this day and say “I love it, loved your class, I’m reading this and this, have you read that and that?” 


How would you define happiness?

To me, happiness is contentment. Happiness is an extreme, as is sadness. On that continuum, I like to be content, meaning I like to be at peace. If you asked me “how’s your day,” I would respond “It was good.” And you would ask “Oh it wasn’t great?” I feel no one can be that happy all the time without medication. So happiness is being at peace, if you’re fortunate being in love, and feeling very grateful. Grateful for the things I have accomplished, grateful for the things that are in my life, my family, my pets, getting to hangout with you guys. I woke up this morning excited to talk about Power of Myth chapter 2. 


What would you grab in a house fire? 

Aside from Jill, Prim, and the cats, I would just have to walk. Not even my journals. Because otherwise I’d have remorse and regret over what I should’ve grabbed and it’s just better to wipe the slate clean.


Would you consider yourself a minimalist?

I think so. If you were to walk in my house, most things have a purpose. I despise clutter and I have really been trimming things down in my office. I have one bookcase of books I really love, I have some art, some trinkets from places I’ve traveled, but that’s it. It’s very streamlined. I used to wear a suit and tie everyday. I donated those because now they’d just hang in my closet. I grew up with very humble means: my mom was a school teacher, and my dad was a salesman. We didn’t have much, so I’ve never had much. So the things I have are very meaningful to me. So to answer your question, yeah. I think I am very much a minimalist. 


What was the most enriching trip you ever took?

For me, it was living in Mexico. I lived there for 4 months. I lived in an abandoned service station without electricity or running water, and every night by candlelight I would write out my lesson plans. I taught while taking class with a dozen of Ft. Lewis students, and every friday we would come back and professors would come on a rotating basis and teach us. And Monday through Friday we would be back in our villages and teaching elementary kids English. It was unbelievable. It was a profound time. It was humbling, I learned more about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses. I came back a different person in a really good way. The immersion was transformative.


What fuels your passion for film?

In the clip I showed today in class (Crash), Paul Haggis is taking philosophical principles and compiling them into a story about life and death. The Matrix and all of the films on that list I handed out are from philosophical angles.


Which books or films most changed your outlook?

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read that in highschool during my senior year. I’d add to that Into the Wild by Jon Krakuaer. As for film, I got turned onto Alfred Hitchcock when I was quite young, and he’s one of my favorite directors. I remember watching Psycho as a young person. Really if I hadn’t fallen so in love with history I could see myself working in film.


What do you most want to teach seniors?

I want to hopefully ignite a spark that’s already there to learn more about these philosophers and their ideas. I love it when a kid realizes “we spent two days on this and I’m just kind of getting into it.” That’s the idea to begin a lifelong journey of following these philosophers. I hope students find some peace in the class. I hope they find some self, obviously there’s a lot of kids who are struggling with anxiety and angst and the unknown. While you’re in my classroom I want to give you some peace and solace and joy. I want them to find a modicum of success, knowing they took a challenging class they didn’t know much about and came out not just ok but successful.