Gabriel Richard social studies teacher Kyle Rutkowski's ongoing lessons on Queen Elizabeth have been anything but common
RIVERVIEW — Kyle Rutkowski was teaching his social studies class at Gabriel Richard High School in Riverview when he found out that Queen Elizabeth II had died Sept. 8. While the queen’s death at the age of 96 after 70 years of faithful service reverberated throughout the world, her death was felt acutely by Rutkowski and his students.
Since 2010, Rutkowski has been teaching his classes about Queen Elizabeth and her family. He weaves her life and legacy into lessons ranging from government to economics, and teaches his students about the example she sets on the world stage.
His classroom walls are plastered with images drawn by students over the years depicting the queen, along with other historical events. Two life-size cutouts of Queen Elizabeth stand in his classroom next to other historical figures including Kate Middleton, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley and Kim Jong Un.
Finding out the queen had died from one of his students while in class was fitting, Rutkowski told Detroit Catholic.
“Students have been asking me about this for years and years and years: ‘Mr. R, what are you going to feel? What are you going to do (when the queen dies)?’” Rutkowski said. “I guess in some ways it was appropriate that it happened on a school day early enough in the day that we were still here."
The news leaked out at about 10 a.m. that there was a serious situation, and family members were racing back to Balmoral to be with the queen.
"By 1 p.m. our time, it was over, and it was, for me personally, just a very weighted, heavy historical moment," Rutkowski said. "That was quite a moment for a student of history like myself, after all these years that it actually had happened, and I was actually quite sad about it. There is still a celebration of her life, but it was a heavy and sad historic moment, for sure.”
Rutkowski, who previously taught at Cabrini High School, has taught for three years at Gabriel Richard. Early on in his teaching career, Rutkowski decided he wanted to bring to life personalities throughout history to help bring social studies alive for his students.
“I wanted a historical figure that I thought could be looked up to for the right reasons for having a sense of duty, being consistent, being a good role model,” Rutkowski explained. “I picked the queen, and I knew a lot about her and a lot about her family. I got a cutout (of Queen Elizabeth), and I kind of played it up with students, and they really enjoyed talking about her and her life and her family, her children and her grandchildren."
Rutkowski’s fascination with Queen Elizabeth — whom he and his students affectionately refer to as “Lizzie” — has grown over time. While he entered his career with an appreciation of the queen, his respect for her historical significance has increased even more in the weeks since her passing.
“She represents so much history in herself, and I think that is probably how she will be remembered from now in history books, representing the era going all the way back to World War II and black-and-white television, all the way through the modern social media era,” Rutkowski said.
The queen met 13 U.S. presidents, had 15 prime ministers and decorated the Beatles, Rutkowski said.
“It's almost never-ending her connections to the world in general,” Rutkowski said. “And the more I have taught and gotten older, I have recognized and realized that she is going to be one of a kind; there will not be another Queen Elizabeth, mainly because of the longevity and the time period her reign took place.”
As monarch, Queen Elizabeth was head of the Church of England, however, over the course of her lifetime, she met with four pontiffs, starting with Pope Pius XII in 1951, a year before her ascension to the throne, and ending with Pope Francis in 2014.
Following her passing, Pope Francis sent a telegram to King Charles III, expressing his condolences.
“I willingly join all who mourn her loss in praying for the late queen’s eternal rest and in paying tribute to her life of unstinting service to the good of the nation and the Commonwealth, her example of devotion to duty, her steadfast witness of faith in Jesus Christ and her firm hope in his promises,” Pope Francis said.
In his early years of teaching, Rutkowski and his students were focused on whether her majesty would break the all-time British monarch record, which, at the time, was held by Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and seven months. Rutkowski and his students began a countdown clock 500 days out from when Queen Elizabeth would officially become the longest reigning monarch; she officially reached that historic milestone at 5:30 p.m. British time on Sept. 9, 2015. At the time of her death, Queen Elizabeth had reigned for 70 years and 214 days.
Rutkowski added he and his class wrote a letter to Buckingham Palace in 2015 prior to her breaking the record, wishing her well and letting the queen know her reign was being watched carefully and enthusiastically from Michigan.
His classes have long been interested in the line of royal succession and in the queen’s interests and image, from her love of nature and animals such as her beloved corgis and horse to her many colorful outfits, hats and crowns, Rutkowski said.
One of Rutkowski's favorite facts about the queen is that she met every president dating back to World War II, from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden, with the exception of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“I don’t think any other human being can make that claim to have met someone on a personal level for that length of time stretching from the 1940s to 2020s,” Rutkowski said.
“She didn’t meet Johnson because that was one of the few times in American history where other areas were just more important, mainly being the issues with Vietnam, issues within the U.S., where it seemed like the British-American alliance wasn’t that important at that time and that Johnson and his White House were preoccupied with other issues,” Rutkowski explained. “It’s still amazing that he broke the streak there. If he could have only known; he was the only one who never met her.”
Although Rutkowski doesn’t believe there will ever be another monarch like Queen Elizabeth II, he does have hope for King Charles, who ascended to the throne at age 73 following the passing of his mother.
“I think Charles has a bit of a honeymoon period here where he can create a new legacy for himself in terms of moving away from some of the troubles that people still remember between him and Lady Di(ana), and more toward a new era where he can recreate the monarchy a little bit,” Rutkowski mused.
As Prince of Wales, King Charles spoke more openly about his opinions, Rutkowski said, whereas Queen Elizabeth II notoriously said very little about world events nor about her private life.
“I think there is a chance that he could open just a little bit of that door and share just a little bit, particularly in the area of protecting the environment,” Rutkowski said. “That is definitely one of his areas of focus. I think other than that, he will follow a similar path that the monarchy has been on.”
Despite being a royal watcher for all these years, Rutkowski has never been a fan of the popular Netflix show The Crown, which depicts royal life over the decades, with a focus on the queen. While the show sensationalizes much of the private lives of the royals, Rutkowski likes to keep his focus on the big picture of who "Lizzie" was.
“(I think about) how much the world was changing, but her role and her basic image didn’t change very much,” Rutkowski said. “She believed that she was put in the role by God to do her absolute best in service and duty to the nation until she was literally not here to do that anymore.”
While Rutkowski admits it will be strange not having Queen Elizabeth as the reigning British monarch, her presence will continue to rule his classroom, and Rutkowski’s royal lessons have stuck with his hundreds of students over the years.
“The queen is a timeless figure; I think she is someone who can be one of the few universally appreciated peopled out there in history, and I am glad that I have been able to share that with my students and have been able to make it a part of me and my personality because I really have enjoyed it,” Rutkowski said.
“It is a sad time now, (but) it will very quickly turn into a celebration of her life — it is almost endless the number of musicians and entertainers and famous people who were knighted and honored by her — and it's positive. I am on the lookout for positive history, and she fits pretty well into that spot.”
As the bell rang at the end of his class period, Rutkowski exhorted his students to go out into the world and be kind — like Lizzie.