Monday, January 3, 2011

Teachers and Heroes

By LC Van Savage

Teachers, the great and mostly unsung heroes of the world, are one of the singular most important influences on the formative-and-beyond years of our children, responsible for forcing vitally vital knowledge into their bread-dough brains, hoping most of it stays and doesn't ooze out.

But, as in all professions there are some who should never have taken up teaching, but did anyway for reasons best known to them.

My friend Pearl told me about one of her teachers over lunch one day, as we reminisced about the teachers who'd most influenced our lives, a man who probably should have sought another profession; her history teacher. Pearl said she'd so yearned to love history, but this teacher managed to chase away this passion of hers and replace it with an overwhelming desire to escape from his classroom under any circumstances. His name was Mr. Grey, and the name fit.

Mr. Grey, she said, would come into the room, his arms laden with stacks of books which he'd drop on his desk from a height high enough so the sound would startle his students, already somnolent from too hot radiators, into pop-eyed wakefulness. That was the highpoint of the history hour for those kids. Mr. Grey would look about the classroom and mumble "Good Morning," or sometimes "Good Afternoon," depending. Everyone dreaded his next move: The Picking Up of the Chalk. When that happened, the lesson would begin and so would the semi-comas. Eyelids would lower, flutter up, lower, flutter, lower, lower again and stay lowered.

And then Mr. Grey, she said, would write his entire lesson on that board and he'd speak every single word as he wrote. Each and every word would begin with the first written letter of that word, and would end at the last. Mmmaaaaaggnnaaa Caaarrrtaaa. Wwwwaaaaarr of Eeeeiiiiighteeeeen Twwwwelllllvvve. Sewwwwwaaaaaaarrrd's Follllllyyy. Thommasssss Jeffferrssssonn. By the hour's end, the blackboards on two sides of the classroom and the big one in front were completely filled with his cursive and his students would by then be in full-coma. When the bell mercifully rang and the groggy students would stagger from the room, Mr. Grey, said Pearl, would slowly erase all this chalked droney words so he write them all over again for his next history class.

Just listening to Pearl describe these horribly boring history lessons had me falling over into my soup. High School History for her was a maaaajjorrrr drrraaaaggg when, as everyone knows, it can be the most vibrant, funny, fascinating and enjoyable of all school courses.

I then told Pearl about a couple of my teachers. One was Mrs. W. who taught biology, a sneaky woman who'd deliberately bring a substitute teacher into class even though she was in robustly good health just so she could sit in the back and spy on us. We'd all of course, shortly forget about Mrs. W's being there and would begin passing notes, not paying attention and getting away with whatever we could. I'll never forgive Mrs. W. for calling me in after class and saying, "Well Miss Richardson, it's no wonder to me at all that your marks are so terrible in biology, since you insist upon spending so much class time flirting outrageously with Bobby Maxwell across the room. Do not attempt to deny this. I have watched you steadily and I know what I saw, young lady! Furthermore, I have taken assiduous notes.” I had always thought that assiduous described lemon trees, so Mrs. W’s taking assiduous notes meant nothing to me. I vehemently denied this scurrilous accusation, but in fact she had me dead to rights. Bobby Maxwell was one hot dude back then and the guy had goals. He wanted nothing more than to become an undertaker which is what they were called back then. Funeral director is probably more PC. Bobby Maxwell’s undertaking business became a chain, a sort of McDonald’s of Funeral Homes, and he did very well for himself.

And then there was the French teacher, Mme. C. who refused to speak a single word of English even in emergencies, such as fire drills, insisting that we'd learn French to perfection if we heard only French. She also refused to allow any of us to speak a word of English either which made things very difficult on the first day of school when my stomach was in knots, since I had no idea how to say diarrhea in French. Miming was definitely out too even though miming “diarrhea” was pretty basic I thought. Mme. C. was tres cruel. I saw her years later at a gathering when I was married and a mother and was sorely tempted to speak to her about her nastiness from years back, but decided to wimp out and not bother, although I preferred to call it “taking the high road.” To this day I wonder if I could have saved other student had I spoken up.

And Mr. D. who taught science and who had a running battle with Mrs. F., the English teacher next door, a feud which began when one of his students began bouncing a ball before class against the wall separating his classroom from Mrs. F's, and oh, the lovely brawling that ensued! It was delightful and went on for months, the two teachers taking real cuts at one another in front of all of us until it finally ended when the gallant Mr. D. finally caved, sent compunctious flowers to the enraged Mrs. F., and the fun abruptly ended. Way disappointing

And then there was Mr. M. who taught math, who would try to explain inverted something-or-others to us, and would illustrate inversion by picking up the smallest boy in the class and hanging him upside down for rather a long time. (This classmate told me forty years later at a reunion that that mathematical action of the well-meaning Mr. M. put him on psychiatrist's couch for much of his adult years.)

But for all their peccadilloes and human frailties, these people taught me well and shaped my life. I wish I'd thanked all those uncelebrated, and I suspect shamefully underpaid teachers from my way-back, who worked so endlessly hard at pounding all they knew and all they could into my bread-dough brain. Some of their lessons did ooze out, most did not. I am who I am today because of those long suffering men and women, and I owe them.

Click on LC Van Savage for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.
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