(As he did last year, The Curmudgeon is taking off the rest of August for a little R & R. While he’s gone he’ll fill this space with encore presentations – okay, reruns – of some of his favorite past posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He’s doing this so you won’t forget him because despite all the bravado and bluster he’s one pretty insecure fellow. During his absence the serialization of Taking Care of Business will continue every Sunday. The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon will return the Tuesday after Labor Day.)
(Seldom has there been a more inaccurate expression than “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” A fairer perspective: those who can teach – truly teach – are amazing. Do you know anyone who didn’t benefit from at least one special teacher? Didn’t think so.)
This is a tale of teachers we’ve known, teachers we’ve loved, and teachers we’ve loathed. It’s a tale of Beverly, Sophie, Bill, and Essie.
The Curmudgeon loves teachers. His sister’s a teacher, his sister in-law’s a teacher, his oldest friend’s wife is a teacher, his favorite classmate from second grade is a teacher. He’s dated teachers. He liked many of his teachers. Thinking back, he’s pretty sure he can tell who was a good teacher and who wasn’t and who really cared about their students and who was just punching the clock. He’s pretty sure the former far outnumbered the latter.
He also knows that, teaching skills aside, some teachers were more influential in his life than others.
Let’s start with Beverly, his seventh grade English teacher at the Mayfair School in Philadelphia. Beverly was tough but fun: she insisted on a full period of grammar every single week, which we hated, yet she talked about basketball a lot, which we liked (although she was a Knicks fan, which we didn’t understand). Beverly was very organized: if The Curmudgeon recalls correctly, Monday was spelling and vocabulary, Tuesday grammar, Wednesday reading and literature, Thursday writing, and Friday more reading and literature.
One day, while returning graded writing assignments to the class, Beverly held The Curmudgeon’s composition aloft and declared, “If you’re not a writer when you grow up, you’ll be wasting your life.” Think that didn’t mean something? Think that wouldn’t stick with a twelve-year-old? Well, if it didn’t, The Curmudgeon wouldn’t remember it today, more than forty years later, would he?
Hey look, Mrs. C. – he’s a writer!
Next there’s Sophie, The Curmudgeon’s English teacher for two years at Lincoln High School, also in Philadelphia. Sophie was considered the best English teacher in the school, and that’s why they assigned her to what the school considered its best class of English students. In a school where the usual class size was thirty to thirty-five students, this was a class of twelve that took a more independent approach to its work than the typical class.
The first time Sophie graded one of The Curmudgeon’s writing assignments she filled the page with comments – most of them critical. She then instructed him to create an error sheet, write down every mistake she noted for the rest of the year, and then refer to the error sheet every time he wrote something for class. Because of the special program, she knew she would have him as a student for at least two years, so she proceeded to address one aspect of The Curmudgeon’s very flawed writing at a time. When she was satisfied with his progress in that area, she’d move on to another. Around the second month of the second year, The Curmudgeon finally understood what she was doing and how she was doing it (sometimes, The Curmudgeon can be a bit slow), and after two years under her tutelage he was a much, much better writer.
Sophie influenced The Curmudgeon in another way as well. In addition to the two books students had to read for classroom discussion and writing assignments every month, we also had to write ten separate book reports a year. The class had a great deal of latitude to read what it wanted, but after three book reports Sophie pulled The Curmudgeon aside after class one day and told him, “You’re reading junk. The Curmudgeon can still recall the three books that led to this point – all selections his mother purchased from the Literary Guild. She handed him a book to read – he doesn’t remember what it was – and told him his next book report would be about that book and that from that day forward, he had to seek her approval before reading any new book for book report purposes – a requirement made of no one else in the class. For the first few months she rejected as many titles as she approved, but after a while The Curmudgeon got the hang of it: he could read only “literature.” While in general The Curmudgeon believes most literature is absolutely wasted on teenagers – seriously, how can a fifteen-year-old boy possibly be expected to appreciate My Antonia? – it launched him onto a path of reading great fiction – literature, if you will – that he continues to follow to this day. What a wonderful gift.
Thank you, Mrs. P.
Bill was The Curmudgeon’s social studies teacher twice: during his sophomore and senior years of high school. He taught the first year like a law school class led by television’s Professor Kingsfield – very high-pressure and very Socratic but with great enthusiasm and passion for his subject and his students. There was no choice but to learn to read very, very carefully and to be very, very attentive to details, and Bill taught this – essentially, how to read – without directly teaching it.
Equally important, Bill taught The Curmudgeon about well-written history. This was another very small class, and for it, Bill – head of the school’s social studies department – went out and bought a special, college-level textbook for his students. The National Experience is an outstanding American history textbook, with each era’s section written by the leading expert on that era. The Curmudgeon now has his own copy and refers to it often.
But the real lesson Bill taught was that the best history is not found in textbooks, that there are entire books out there devoted to specific, often narrow aspects of history that are every bit as interesting, as well-written, and as compelling as the best novels. He assigned such readings, and through those assignments, twelve very fortunate students read The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter, Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, and others. It was a college-level history education in high school – a public high school, no less – but more important, it was an introduction to the study of history, and to reading about history, that has stuck with The Curmudgeon all these years. He reads history frequently – exceptionally well-written books about interesting and even exciting subjects. David Halberstam, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman (Bill especially sang her praises), Daniel Boorstin, James MacGregor Burns, and many others – and it all began with Bill.
Thank you, Mr. B.
And finally there’s Essie. The first sentence of this piece mentioned teachers we loathed, and this is a one-teacher category because Essie was without peer.
Back in those days, students of an academic bent at Lincoln High School believed that hard, unpleasant, mean teachers must be great teachers, so Essie had a reputation as a great teacher. She wasn’t – as every teacher to whom The Curmudgeon has ever described her over the years has insisted. Just ten years older than her students – yes, the internet helps you learn these things years after the fact – she was fiftyish in her attitudes and demeanor and even, if The Curmudgeon recalls correctly, in her manner of dress. She was a Little House on the Prairie schoolmarm with a god complex and an apparent obsession with tea.
She wielded her prejudices like weapons. In a tenth grade writing class she asked if anyone knew anything about speed reading. When The Curmudgeon raised his hand and said he did, that he had just taken an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, Essie unloaded on him and in the course of the next few weeks never even attempted to mask her contempt for him. As recently as just a few weeks ago The Curmudgeon encountered a former classmate who told a similar tale of daring to do something in a manner of which Essie did not approve and feeling the never-ending brunt of the teacher’s wrath as a result.
We didn’t understand this back then, but Essie was really just your garden-variety bully in a prairie skirt.
Fortunately for The Curmudgeon, circumstances not of his own making took him out of that class after a few weeks and, he hoped, out of range of Essie’s weaponry forever. Those hopes were dashed, though, when he walked into his twelfth grade English class on the first day of school and found a sneering Miss Priss standing at the front of the room. Though slight in stature, she proved to be like an elephant: she never forgot. The sneer never left her face, and after only a month of seeing The Curmudgeon in action she told him he had a juvenile vocabulary and couldn’t write at all.
This was during our senior year of high school, and with SATs looming, Essie made her class an offer: anyone interested in extra vocabulary work could show up at a certain time and at a certain place and she would work with them. Mortified by the still-fresh revelation that he apparently had a juvenile vocabulary, The Curmudgeon showed up at the appointed time and place – the only one of his dozen or so classmates to do so. When a few minutes passed and no one else appeared, Essie grumbled that she couldn’t be bothered with just one student and departed in a huff.
So much for Essie being a great teacher.
So here’s to you, Essie: Pffffffffffttttttttttttttttttt. You were living proof that it was indeed possible to fool some of the people some of the time, and you certainly fooled a lot of The Curmudgeon’s classmates, who insisted that mean meant good. You did not, however, fool The Curmudgeon, and here’s hoping you didn’t damage too many young people with your nasty, bullying approach to teaching. Somehow, The Curmudgeon survived your attempted abuse and, despite the intellectual shortcomings you were so certain he had and so eager to tell him about, he managed to learn how to string together a few decent sentences without your help and has earned a respectable living doing that for the past thirty years.
Our society doesn’t seem to value teachers very much. Somehow, people have gotten it into their heads that anyone who knows that six times seven is forty-two can teach third grade math, but that’s not true. They also think $40,000, $60,000, or $80,000 is too much to pay someone who will shape the future of their children and shape the future of our society. People, alas, can be pretty stupid at times. Teaching is at the very least a real skill, and in the hands of its foremost practitioners, an art as well.
The Curmudgeon feels fortunate that he encountered so many artists.