School Life
Morning Meeting

This Charming Man

Over 25 years in the Classroom, Francis Decker Challenges Students to Think, Write and Laugh
Oh, there's more to life than books, you know / But not much more, not much more…
The lyrics from the song “Handsome Devil” keep coming back to English teacher Francis Decker, some four decades after they were recorded by the iconic English alternative rock band The Smiths. “If I were to get a tattoo, it would probably be that line,” says Decker. First-time visitors to Decker’s classroom are immediately awed by the variety of classic movie and rock posters from the past few decades. From Morrissey and The Smiths to the Big Lebowski and Public Enemy, the walls of room D-4 in the Academic Building could be a self-guided tour of the most influential cinematic, musical and literary icons of the last 50 years. 
But it's the books that matter. Stacked behind Decker’s desk and lectern is the treasured collection of a voracious reader. Raised in a rural part of King William County, about an hour northeast of Richmond, Decker’s love of literature was formed almost out of necessity. “We didn't have cable, I never had an Atari. Our TV could get four channels, and this was before VCRs,” he recalls. “In the bright blue days of October. It's too cold to be outside. So you sit by the fire and you read. I worked my way through a lot of Mark Twain. Leon Uris and Stephen King. My father used to say, ‘If you sit around and watch TV all day, you've wasted your day. If you sit around and read a book all day, that’s one of the best days you’ll ever have.’”
Indeed — “There's more to life than books you know, but not much more.”
When Francis Decker first arrived at Trinity in 1999, the building now known as Morgan Hall was still under construction. “The faculty were all in trailers,” he recalls. In his first faculty meeting, then headmaster Tom Aycock announced with relief that there would be 230 students coming that fall, which meant the school had “made budget.”
No novice to the classroom, he had already taught at Mechanicsville High School, Virginia Union University, J. Sargent Reynolds, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Still, his first year was a challenge. “When you teach college, you might teach five times a week,” he says. “Five times a day was a big change for me. I was physically worn down.” 
Ultimately, it was Trinity’s unique combination of creative freedom and student gratitude that led him to fall in love with teaching. “The kids here were so polite and so kind,” he remembers. “I had never had anybody thank me for my teaching [before].”
In college, he thought he wanted to be a psychologist before going back to VCU for his master’s in literature in 1996. (This year, Decker is teaching a psychology elective at Trinity, just like he did in 1999.) “That first year, one of my student’s parents was a doctor, and he brought in a rubber model of a brain. I put a sticky note inside, saying ‘YOU ARE HERE.’” The brain model — and the note — have stuck; they remain a fixture on his desk for curious students to decipher.
The bulk of Decker’s workload has been devoted to 11 Honors and the IB junior year, where he has built a reputation as a sought-after guide for the IB Extended Essay as well as a master instructor of the craft and structure of essay writing. “When given a writing assignment, our graduates are not intimidated like their peers,” says Head of School Rob Short, noting Decker’s influence. “They immediately know what to do.”
He credits his master’s adviser, Catherine Ingrassia, a British literature scholar at VCU, with inspiring his teaching philosophy. “Everything I teach is something that would also be taught in college,” he says. “If you approach kids as responsible and as adults, and as people who can make good decisions, you elevate the entire classroom.”
“When I think of Francis, I think of stories,” says Betsy Reid, Head of the English Department and Decker’s hallmate for 10 years. “Not just the stories he reads and analyzes with his students, but those he tells… Instead of teaching the same novel from the 1800's every fall, Francis spends a lot of time thinking about new books that students will enjoy and learn something from. He truly loves sharing the craft of storytelling with his students.”
The list of books he has taught over the years includes a few of the classics — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez — mixed with the modern — “Never Let Me Go” by Kuazo Ishiguro, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. “Advanced readers like a challenge,” says Decker. “When they’re challenged with something, they begin to like it.”
His biggest literary pet peeve? Formulaic, lazy thinking. “This guy’s bad, and that guy’s good? No. What if they're both bad? What if two people compete with each other and neither wins?” For Decker, postmodern superheroes like Batman and the flawed protagonists of Ernest Hemingway echo the plays of the Ancient Greeks. “I like stories where there is no hero. Everyone does something horrible. We’re all guilty.”
Outside of the classroom, Decker calls Morning Meeting the best reflection of the Trinity spirit — setting the tone and allowing students and faculty alike to take pride in the variety of interests represented. “It’s not like the squawk box of [a traditional high school’s] homeroom and dull fade out and walk through your day,” he says. “Here, Morning Meeting is fun and open, a way of relating to everyone. I don't know anything about robotics, or sewing — but I love hearing about them.”
For Decker, it’s the moments of silliness — where the foibles of humanity protrude, and teenagers respond with grace — that have made for his fondest memories. Like the time when he led a senior trip to a bowling alley, and a student who had never bowled before accidentally threw a ball through the ceiling. Or the time he vouched for a group of students to see a remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” 
“At Trinity, kids are allowed to be silly and goofy, and they’re not torn down for that,” Decker says. “As faculty, we are kind of given a license to be kids again too. It's a pretty rewarding experience as an educator and human. It's why I'm glad that my son is here.” Decker has been married to Colleen Curran, writer and editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for 18 years, and together they have two boys, Henry ’26 and future Titan Augustus “Gus” (7th grade).
“At the end of the day, after essays have been graded and tests have been written, Francis loves literature and loves his students and wants those two to overlap in a meaningful way,” says Maria Bartz, Head of Student Support & Academic Program. “I hear from students all the time that they really learned how to read in his class — how to find meaning between the lines, how to fall in love with a story, and how to appreciate an author's impact.”
“He is the person that truly made me fall in love with literary analysis which is what I ended up minoring in at William & Mary,” says Isabella Anderegg ’17. “His dedication to the strange and odd books pushed me further into the depths of Modernist plays, movies, and of course literature.”
“We always looked forward to his English class because of his rampant sarcasm, his unmatched passion for teaching, and his very distinct and contagious laugh,” Ella Roberts ’17 and Grace English ’17.
Other alumni will remember one of his three rollicking graduation speeches, each delivered with trademark sardonic wit. In 2017, he left graduates with some deceptively simple advice to “just dance,” before descending into the crowd, doling out high fives to the beat of “Buggin’ Out” by A Tribe Called Quest. “He was the cornerstone and go-to teacher and mentor for my class,” remembers Will Michael ’17.
Among faculty from the early 2000s, he will forever be revered for his hilariously sarcastic minutes of the weekly faculty meetings. That sense of humor has carried Decker through two and a half decades as a teacher and colleague. “You will hear Francis before you see him,” says Bartz. “His laugh is infectious and is guaranteed to make everyone smile during MM or in the hallways.”
“Anyone who knows Francis knows his big laugh that can go from a single ‘HA!’ to a long, high-pitched ‘HAHAHA,’” says Reid. “He's quick-witted and smart, with the comedic timing of a professional comedian.”
“What I love about Francis is that he has the ability to bond with anyone from any culture,” says Short. “He has such a knowledge of humanity that comes from his love of literature. He loves being a student of human nature. That's why kids end up loving his class.”
If The Smiths were right — and there really isn’t much more to life than books — then for the hundreds of students who have had a front row seat in room D-4 over the past 25 years, Francis Decker has made every bit count.

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