This past weekend was high school graduation weekend for most of the schools in our area. At times like these, I sometimes hear folks waxing nostalgic about certain teachers who made an impact on them. I never had a chance to thank a couple of teachers who taught me extremely valuable lessons that served me well over the years, so here goes.
First, there was my fourth grade teacher. She introduced to me to an idea which has always stuck with me, and which has served me well in my many years as a college professor: Adults, and teachers in particular, can be wrong. Up until this time I had always assumed that adults were always right. They knew more than kids did because they had been around a lot longer and had already gone through school. Teachers in particular were always right because, well, they’re teachers.
My fourth grade teacher proved this line of reasoning was dead wrong. Among other things, she insisted that we never say “The United States” but rather, “The United States of America” because there were other “United States'” in the world. She then informed us that “U.S.S.R.” stood for “The United States of Soviet Russia”. As a ten year old, I already knew this was false and shot my hand up in the air. My friend Kevin took a more direct route and simply blurted out “No it doesn’t. It stands for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. I managed to join him in the last few syllables. Our fearless teacher was not to be taken so easily and dismissed us both with a wave of her hand and a “Well, it means that too, but mostly it means the United States of Soviet Russia”. At first I was somewhat confused by the encounter, but eventually it all came together.
On another occasion, she informed us that the giraffe was referred to as “the animal that God forgot” because, according to her, it had no natural defenses against predators. One of my classmates was quick to point out that giraffes can run. She retorted that it was a very clumsy and ineffective sort of run and to illustrate, slouched over and gave an impression of what can be best described as a drunken Quasimodo in search of more hooch. We had a couple sets of encyclopedias in our home, and at the end of the day I looked up giraffe and discovered that they are indeed quite fast and possess a kick of sufficient force to crack a lion’s skull.
Another valuable lesson came from some horse-play on a winter’s morning. A bunch of us boys had gotten wet throwing snowballs at each other in the school yard. Our teacher made those of us who lived close by go home and change into something dry. As punishment, we had to stay after school. Our task involved doing a series of problems in our math book that were a couple of sections ahead of where we were in class. I read the requisite material, handed in the answers, and in short order received a classic “Hrmmph”. A week or so later, we started that section and to my delight, I already knew it. The lesson learned? I could pick up a textbook and teach myself things. I didn’t need the teacher to explain it first. (As a side note, I was in the habit of reading the afore-mentioned encyclopedias when I would go home for lunch. It was fun. There were lots of pictures of different places, maps, and other cool stuff. For some reason though, I hadn’t quite made the link between that and a textbook.)
My fourth grade teacher was a little weird and not always correct, but she wasn’t purposely mean. In contrast, my eighth grade English teacher taught me that some people can be cruel, vindictive, and will waste your time for fun. I found the class to be altogether dreadful. As an example, she once teamed up with a Social Studies teacher and came up with a series of topics for each of us to write a term paper (mine was on the effect of the Monroe Doctrine on our entrance into World Ward One). We were warned that as we were the “honors group” (as we were called in those days), this would not be some little five page report. She expected at least 20 pages with appropriate footnotes, citations, references, etc. Now I have nothing against this assignment per se. What I had (and still have) a problem with is the following: The day after she collected our work, she addressed the class, pointed to the thick stack of papers on her desk and said in effect “This will be an awful lot of work for me to read and I’m sure it’ll be pretty lousy, so why don’t we just put them in the circular file and be done with them”. With that, she gave a push and the papers dropped into the wastebasket. The room was completely silent, although if gaping mouths and pie-eyes could make a sound, the room would have been thunderous.
And there you have it: Two extraordinary teachers who taught me very valuable lessons. The lessons may not have been on the syllabus, but they were valuable none the less. It’s easy to learn stuff from really great teachers, but sometimes you can learn very useful stuff from the not so great ones too.