The school I used to teach in had some wonderful academic programs. It also had a couple of fluffy ones. Every week, there were these “electives” teachers had to teach that had no homework and usually a low energy level (many of these were electives involving ten to fifteen students watching popular movies). One time, I “taught” an elective on music for the masses, wherein students could share their musical collections with each other. One student brought in Paul Simon, and we all chuckled at the well-known first line of the song: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Even at that young age, even when they’re still in high school, the students know they won’t remember much, that academic learning isn’t the important learning from school. It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t remember historical dates, math equations, or the conjugation of the subjunctive in Spanish. What can a high school teacher, then, hope to impart to her students? Well, these are actual memories I have from the high school classroom:
In ninth grade history class, the teacher tried to convince the entire class that there is no such thing as trying (think Yoda—”Do. Or do not. There is no try.”) and that it’s more sanitary to take baths than to shower. He managed to convince almost the whole class that these things were true. I adamantly (I believe most people called it “stubbornly”) refused to accept these logical flaws. One time he almost kicked me out of class. Another time, he asked the class to bring in mirrors the next day and to aim them at me the next time I talked because I, supposedly, was talking to only myself. That year, in history class, I learned how immature teachers can be, even if they’re extremely old. I also learned that when people realize later on that you were right to stick to your beliefs, they call you persistent or resilient. At the time, though, everyone calls you stubborn.
In ninth grade biology class, the teacher always badgered students who arrived late… unless said students came late from cooking class and happened to bring her a baked treat. Bloody favoritism… or bribery, at least. I also remember being too sissy to dissect anything, so I let my lab partner, Amy, do all the cutting, gripping, and burrowing out. She’s in medical school now.
In ninth grade English class, the teacher decided in the first week of class whom he would like for the rest of the year and also whom he would pick on and make fun of for the rest of the year. I got in an argument with him once because he insisted there was no such thing as freezing rain. He wrote on my short story that if it was freezing it should be ice, then, or at least hail (never mind that this is just not true—there is such a thing as freezing rain). After our argument, he said he never wanted to “conference” a paper with me again.
Tenth grade English brought me to a teacher who “got” my quirkiness. I wrote an essay on time, and I wrote it with the sentences in reverse order. Any other teacher would have asked me to rewrite it or would have at least given me a bad grade on it, but he appreciated it and thought it clever (presumably not just because of the gimmick but also because of what I wrote). I did get in an argument with him later, though, because he insisted the God of the New Testament (loving) was not the same one as the one from the Old Testament (angry). Surely, I’d have been fired if I preached to my students, but since he was anti-Christianity, I guess he couldn’t have gotten in trouble.
In physics, we had a long-term substitute teacher who supposedly had been a genius when he attended the school four years earlier. One of his extra credit questions had a stick-figure-drawing holding a vertical stick attached to a box. The question read: “Can you design a more efficient lawn mower?” I answered, “Yes.” He didn’t give me any credit for that answer, despite my protests. I’ve been grateful ever since. Later, when I became a teacher, I was thankful that a colleague introduced me to the following phrase to be put in vocabulary and grammar quiz directions: “Let common sense and the most likely intended meaning of the sentence guide your choices.” I also learned as a teacher, when giving multiple choice tests and quizzes, to ask students to pick the “best” choice rather than the “right” one.
I took AP Spanish as a junior. My friends and I (there were about four of us) were the only juniors in a class full of seniors. The teacher also happened to be one of the senior class advisors, and she was in love with the senior class. She was one of those teachers who always wanted to be hip with the kids, even though she was middle-aged. So, instead of teaching us Spanish, she’d spend the first fifteen minutes of class gossiping and joking (speaking entirely in English) with the seniors. Then, my friend Kitty (one of the sweetest people there is) would ask a simple (usually relevant to the curriculum) question, and the teacher would snap back at her, “¡En Español, por favor!”
I spent a lot of time in the art room. Even though I was never good enough to get the “real” art awards, every year the art teacher found a way to make up a special award for me, in appreciation of all the extra time I spent in the art room. (I practically lived there.) He was great, too. He’d always chastise the pot smokers who hung around the art room, getting high, but when they were drawing and doing art, he was very encouraging to them.
My tenth and eleventh grade history teacher was a white woman who was the first person to teach me about institutional racism. She was also an ardent feminist and gave me the opportunity to read I Never Called It Rape, which, along with The Feminine Mystique, was instrumental in turning me into a die-hard feminist.
Senior year, in BC Calculus, some student made a remark that, in some slight way, put down the teacher (it was a light-hearted remark, but I forget what it was). She put her hands to her chest, laughed, then said, “Oh! Cut to the quick!” All of my classmates and I looked at each other in bewilderment. She was aghast. “You don’t know what that means?” I was later to experience this whenever I, as a teacher and child of the 80s, mentioned anything before 1990. My students, most of them, had never even heard of David Bowie.
There are probably other teacher-related memories I have, but those are the ones that stand out the most for me. And, of course, I learned much from interaction with my peers, but everyone does. It’s when teachers wonder, “What will my students take away with them… to college and for life?” that it makes sense to think about, “What did I take away from my teachers?” I paid most attention to hypocrisy, passion, sensitivity, inconsistency, flexibility, compassion, justice, and enthusiasm. Teachers may ostensibly teach academic subjects; students, though, will always remember the teachers not as knowledge-bins but as role models (cheesy as that sounds). I hope I was a good one.