This story is one of several that have been written by professor Dave Blow’s journalism classes that will be published to the Spartan addressing the ways that COIVD-19 is affecting students’ hometown communities.
“Hi, I’m Exotic John, and welcome to another episode of ‘History, It Happens!”
The man behind the screen dons Joe Exotic apparel with a matching tiger rug in his lap, parodying the ever relevant and popular “Tiger King” on Netflix.
But the man behind the screen doesn’t actually go by John Exotic. His real name is John Peterson.
Mr. Peterson to some.
He uploads videos to his YouTube channel, under the name ‘ottertinman,’ giving history lessons remotely from his house in Brandon, Vermont.
But the reason he does so is special.
Peterson, whose parents were both teachers, originally went to college to be a fiction writer, but found he really loved his history classes. He’s loved history since he was a boy and always loved going to historic sights.
There, he found himself wanting to do museum teaching.
So he did, landing a job at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.
“I found that, in working in a museum, you see a group for maybe two-three minutes, then you see another group of people for two-three minutes. You were on the same playback loop,” said Peterson. “They’d ask the same questions, you’d give the same answers.”
But when a group of special-needs students from local schools would come and do an apprenticeship, things changed.
He had a young man who apprenticed under him in the blacksmith shop, and there he found something really special.
“Lo and behold, it was different. Minute by minute, it kept changing. And I saw growth in him,” he said. “And I said ‘wow, maybe this is what it would be like to be a teacher.’”
After a stint of substitute teaching, he found that he loved the idea of being a teacher.
In 1985 he got his teaching license and moved to Vermont with his wife Laura, where he applied to every school in the state.
A high school from Rutland called, and he hasn’t looked back since.
But in November of 2019, Peterson suffered two heart attacks. He was given two days to live and was told the required surgery had a 60% chance success rate.
“Later on, they asked me if I was depressed after my surgery, and I said ‘Hell no! I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said with a laugh.
But having to be on sick leave with the added Covid-19 pandemic meant that he hasn’t been in the classroom since November – in his last school year before retirement.
“Here in Brandon, there’s this big, brightly-painted Adirondack chair in front of the ice-cream shop. I was walking, and there was a kid sitting in the chair, and the chair’s big so he looked like a little munchkin in the chair,” he began. “I said to him, ‘boy, you have the best seat in the town of Brandon!’ And he beamed at me, he smiled at me and said ‘yeah, I know.”
“And it just hit me,” said Peterson. “I love just chatting and connecting with young people, and that is now just in my past.”
Which rounds back to his YouTube videos.
Peterson said he started making the videos to help his AP U.S. History students prepare for the AP Exam, as “they were left high and dry.”
But his current students aren’t the only ones who watch these videos.
One video titled “Lindbergh, America First and Woody Guthrie sings about them,” has 207 views, seemingly watched by students of the past, colleagues, and friends.
They are a great reflection of what he is like in the classroom.
“That’s kind of hard to explain if you haven’t seen it for yourself,” says Maddy Thorner when asked to describe Peterson’s “chaotic energy.”
Thorner, a student at UVM, was once Peterson’s student in his APUSH class, and recognizes him as one of her favorite teachers.
“He just had so much energy, enthusiasm, and passion about everything,” she says. “But he never did things the way normal people would. He always had to figure out a creative and humorous way to do things.”
Another former student, Abby Hawkins, agrees.
“I met Mr. Peterson as a junior in his APUSH class, which was the class that cemented not only what I wanted to study long-term, but that learning could be – and should be – so much more than a grade,” Hawkins said.
She says Peterson is the best example of a teacher who encourages students to learn more about the things they’re interested in and unabashedly share those interests with the world, no matter how niche or nerdy.
“In no other class would I have had the opportunity to draw on a beard with an eyebrow pencil and wear overalls to sing an early 20th century corrido, or reenact the Pullman Strike as my personal American hero, Eugene V. Debs,” she says.
When asked about his teaching styles compared to other teachers, Peterson said he doesn’t like to talk about other teachers, but he never understood teachers who weren’t absolutely in love with their content.
“History isn’t something I do at Rutland High School from eight o’clock to three o’clock five days a week,” says Peterson. “History is something I do 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Stephen French, an English teacher at Rutland High School and co-teacher to the ever so popular American Voices class with Peterson, said Peterson is everything that an educator should aspire to be.
“He has a passion for his discipline, loves sharing his wealth of knowledge with his students and colleagues, and does so through continually inventive and engaging methods,” French said. “His recent health concerns might have led to a departure from the classroom that is a bit earlier than he would have liked, but those of us who know him know that his retirement will in no way slow him down.
“The world is a better place for John Peterson’s presence in it, that much is certain.”
Not only does Peterson have a way of making his history lessons special, he also has a way of making his students feel special.
When Hawkins got a full scholarship to her current school, George Mason University, Peterson was the first person she told right after her parents.
“He has been one of the greatest support systems I had to push me to do what I was capable of, and always showing how proud he was,” she says. “Especially of the self-proclaimed poor kids, who often stuck out like a sore thumb, especially in AP classes.”
“I can still confidently say that I am beyond glad that high school ended, but Mr. Peterson gave me the perspective to look back, laugh, and say ‘screw them, I’m proud of where I came from and who I am.”
Andy Cassarino, a former student and then student teacher of Peterson, called him a great teacher, mentor and friend.
“What I find great about him is that he cares about history and the students he has had throughout his time as a teacher,” says Cassarino. “I think just about anyone who has had him as
a teacher considers themselves very lucky, and I know for a fact they are better off for having had him.”
The truth is, Mr. Peterson takes time out of his day, out of his recovery, not only for his current AP students, but for everyone who has crossed paths with him. There is comfort in his actions, and his words during this time of crisis – like being back home.
That is the truth behind is videos.
“I feel it hasn’t been a waste of time,” Peterson says with a laugh. “I didn’t think as I was working with young people that one day I would look back fondly and say ‘oh, how lucky I was to have had this life.