A year or two ago, maybe more, my junior high school science teacher died. I am still close to my best friend from junior high school, and we grieved. Some time later, my friend encountered a relative of the teacher, and told him how much this teacher had meant to us. What it boils down to is, we worshipped her.
By our fashion standards, she wasn’t that cool. Her hair style and clothes came from an earlier era. (She was in her 30s–practically ancient to us.) But she was cool. Our was a fairly tough junior high school–by no means the worst in the city, but definitely not for sissy teachers. The students made some teachers cry. Fights after school–girls as well as boys–were frequent. It was a miniature version of West Side Story, a movie to which most of us would-be-hoodlums related all too well.
But we were all little angels in Miss Butler’s class. She’d enter the classroom and say, “Sit down and shut up” and we did. I still don’t know how she did that. There must have been at least 30 of us in the class but we all Obeyed. Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, would say she was a pack leader. And I guess, in that school, the analogy fit perfectly. Remember the Buffy episode “The Pack”? http://www.buffyguide.com/episodes/pack/packsyn.shtml
That was the student population at this junior high school–and none of us had stepped into any mystical circles, as far as I know.
In Miss Butler’s class, we sat down, shut up, and paid attention. We learned things, because she was a gifted teacher who made science fascinating to 7th, 8th, and 9th graders, a rare achievement.
Then we’d leave her class and go down the hall and torture the French teacher.
Miss Butler was one of the reasons I did not become a hoodlum. She found a way to stimulate my intellectual competitive streak in an environment where it wasn’t at all cool for girls to be smart. In later years, I did some backsliding (the college partying mentioned last week), but eventually I remembered her saying that one could party and get good grades; it simply meant not getting much sleep. She’d pointed to the bags under her eyes as illustration. So I learned to divide my time–which I guess makes her at least partly responsible for the nerd I am today.
I got to thinking about teachers following last week’s discussion about our reading habits. In the Comments, author Candice Hern talked about the high school curriculum and wondered if there was a Department of Gloom that selected the books. I thought about Miss Butler, who had to teach from a textbook written by someone–or more likely a committee–trying to win the prize for Most Boring Science Textbook in the Known Universe. Yet this teacher found a way to make the subject come alive. She drew analogies between the topic of the day and our lives. She even found a way to make many of us realize that learning stuff was cool.
But she was a rarity. I had another terrific teacher in high school but the majority were not memorable. They were average teachers, not gifted. And in typical Bell curve fashion, there were a couple who were simply dreadful.
My English teachers fell into the Average category.
In English class we read those gloomy books the same way we plugged away–or didn’t–at Latin and French and physics. Because we had to. It would have helped to have some books we could enjoy and really understand, despite our lack of life experience.
I wonder, Why didn’t we read The Pickwick Papers instead of A Tale of Two Cities? David Copperfield instead of Great Expectations?
This is not to say I think PP or DC is superior to the other books. But I think they’re easier for a younger person to digest. And, since they were written before Dickens’s darker period, they don’t want as much life experience to appreciate.
I’ve got some ideas about Shakespeare, too, and Thomas Hardy, and some modern authors. But I’ve also got my own book to finish and no time at present to change the world.
What about you? Did you have a teacher who changed the world for you? If you could be the teacher, and change the world for your students, how would you do it? Would you change the books or the way they’re taught?