Friday, May 7, 2010

Ode to Teachers: The Traditional, non-traditional, and everyone in between

When did I learn to fly?

They say that, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I know that’s not true. These words ring in my ears. The words sting, bur into the soul, seep the life out of you. Yes, the words hurt. However, the words can also be turned into kindling, spark a light—to say in turn, “Your words are not true!” No, I am not stupid, Mrs. H. Just because I’m quiet, just because my classmate whom I’m partnered with also doesn’t understand this grammar crap, does not mean we are stupid. Shame on you, Mrs. H, to look me in the eyes, and with the coldest tone ask, “What…are you stupid?” But of course, this is high school—what seems now eons ago. I had other concerns, inner turmoil, and was too timid to stick up for myself.

It didn’t get much better. It was a long slow process. My first junior college course was a disaster. I remember you well, Mrs. M. When we met to discuss my paper during class and you said with a nonchalant air, “I don’t know…This essay—It sounds like you were on something.” I look at you in shock. Am I hearing you right? True that I didn’t follow the assignment exactly. I was exploring myself. I was writing about my experience, my feelings, inspired by my explorations of the Eastern traditions. “Ah…,”you say, “now I understand. My sister’s into that and I can never understand her letters to me. But this is really off topic, and it’s all over the place. It’s a “D” but I gave you a “C.” I suggest you drop the class.

Why didn’t I quit? No one really encouraged me. I don’t know exactly, but I didn’t give up. There were more discouraging words at different times, but I kept on. I knew it wasn’t all their fault. I knew I wasn’t up to par. Grammar was still a chore and I wasn’t writing complete or organized thoughts. I kept enrolling in English courses and studying on my own, determined to succeed. And at the same time, I dropped many courses when I couldn’t handle the anxiety of speaking in class. It made the road that much longer. But I have no regrets.

When I first felt like I was flying, it was in Mr. Gustavson’s English writing development course for folks like me who still needed help with writing college level papers. We kept journals. “Write everything, don’t hold back,” he told us. I wrote every bloody thing down, but this time, I wrote about my days, about the mundane. I didn’t hold back. I surprised myself. I remember one day he was standing up in front of the class reading examples anonymously. I was listening intently and then I heard familiar musings. He’s reading my journal. I felt the heat rise on my face. I was startled to hear my words flow out of his mouth and when he finished he said, “Now does it sound like she’s having trouble getting her words out?” I can’t even describe how good it made me feel to hear myself up there through him, to actually hear something positive instead of the usual unconstructive criticism. It was a small moment and one that I cherish. It felt like I was getting there.

And then I continued flying in Mr. Hurley’s Freshman English class. Looking back, He was one of the biggest inspirations on my road—for the love of language, writing, reading. He was a kind teacher, very passionate about teaching itself and passionate about the students. In addition to the comments he made on our papers, he would attach a little grid of the different elements of the essay and he would put a check mark next to where our writing fell in that grid, and if need be, he’d add a few more comments. I loved this. I could really see where I needed to focus my attention. I was still on my way, making the small climb. I got a “C” in his class, but more important, I felt like I was in a constructive and supportive environment. I even had to interview someone for one of my papers, which was very scary for me at the time. During an exercise where Mr. Hurley had us pick a few quotes that really stood out for us to discuss. This is one from Susan Faludi that has remained with me: “My barracuda blurbs belie my timorous demeanor.” The cadence and potency of these words—they have become a sort of mantra for me.

I began improving steadily and could not get enough English courses. One last fond flight is from a journalism course on writing the feature story. The instructor started us out with reading two articles about teaching and then she wanted us to write a comparison/contrast reaction. She posted all of the student’s responses without names and wanted us to comment on what we liked and didn’t like. There were a few students who left comments under my paper that said, “I’d like to write like this.” I was in utter amazement and felt such joy. I do remember being absorbed in the assignment, being passionate, letting go, and finally editing and cleaning it up best I could. Even though this wasn’t graded and was just a warm up, I still wanted to do my best in my way, and that’s probably what the students reacted to. However, little did we know this was an exercise in how not to write a feature. After all the students had reacted to our essays, the instructor chimed in and said that while most of these essays were fine in their own right, they were not acceptable for feature writing and she proceeded to tell us why. And so the class began. It was a valuable course, and at times I felt like quitting because it was a different style of writing for me, but I relished in the challenge.

There are so many more positive experiences I’ve had since Mrs. H and Mrs. M. that put the hurtful ones into perspective. And quite honestly, if I didn’t have the negative experiences, I don’t know if I would be here today: Appreciative; both humbled and lifted; passionate about language and expressing myself in a way that is sometimes messy and sometimes neat, but always with passion.

No, I did not forget, but I forgive the hurtful words. I’m still flying, though, still trying to figure out exactly why God put me here. I’m still trying to find new ways to come out of my comfort zone, while respecting my introverted nature. I dream of one day inspiring and encouraging on a large scale, which in my world, will be a small scale. I’d like to provide a safe place, to provide a nurturing and supportive environment that allows for self-exploration, builds self-esteem and helps people find the confidence within themselves to keep turning the sometimes hurtful outer and inner words into gold.


keiko amano said...


I love the quote: “My barracuda blurbs belie my timorous demeanor.”

I feel the same, so I can relate to your experience. As I read this blog, I felt as though I were there with you going up and down in your writing road. Your flower is opening up!

Vincent said...

Though I found your post most interesting, and I have read it a few times, I could not think of anything to say by way of comment. Because it was so different from my own recollections of teachers. Your themes appear to be criticism, constructive and unconstructive; encouragement and discouragement.

Perhaps teachers should encourage. But I don't remember anything like that, in English or any other subject. All I recall as comment on essays was marks out of 10, or a single terse word or phrase.

I think I was educated by a generation of teachers who never thought to build up any kind of mentoring relationship to individual pupils. Perhaps indeed it would have seemed creepy if they did. We knew our relative positions in class because they were announced, and you just had to accept them as a fact of life, like your batting average in cricket. As it happens I was beyond hopeless in all sports and almost always top in class.

I think we were just expected to do our best. But I am going to a school reunion in June (the 400th anniversary of its founding in 1610), I will ask other old boys about this. Could you help me formulate a question to them please Rebb?

Rebb said...


Yes, that is a great quote.

I'm glad that you could relate, Keiko. It would be interesting to hear of your experiences.

Rebb said...

Ah, Vincent, I can see you. I'm so glad you decided to also post your photo.

Your response gives me much to ponder. I have often been curious through the years about how the educational system differs here in the US by state and also by country. I have not done any research, though.

As I reflect back upon my own words and your comments, in my mind this is also a reminder of the power that teachers and the in-between’s have upon children's psyches--the power of their words. There will be all types of students, but for the ones that are not so sure of themselves, it does not help to have teachers say hurtful things. This is just a small view, one person's perspective and experience.

You mentioned differences of generation and also of the students knowing their relative positions in the class. After I got past the hurt and accepted that I wasn't going to amount to much at school, I began rebelling a little, cutting classes, and sassing back to teachers, falling in with questionable people. For me, I knew there were rules but I didn't want to follow them and most, if not all of my courses, did not interest me. I did not feel in my element. Academically, high school for me was a total failure and community college almost was too. Even though the road through community college was difficult at first, thank goodness something shifted in me. It's hard to pinpoint any one thing that changed. There were later several encouraging nudges I received along the way and I think if not for this, who knows. So, this ode, focuses on the themes you pointed out and, of course, it is one small slice because I wanted to focus and show what I showed. Not every young human can bounce back, and believe me I've had my ugly moments too, but luckily I also became very self-reflective and in a way reshaped myself, with "helping hands" along the way.

It sounds to me that there most definitely is a cultural difference as well. And the fact that your school is having its 400th anniversary says something. The students who attended, I imagine, couldn't be anything more than serious about their education.

In looking back, my high school experience felt very much like limbo and I couldn't wait to get out.

Question(s), hmm… What questions do you think you'd like to ask the old boys, Vincent? I suppose it would be interesting to know how they viewed their whole educational experience in general and which teachers inspired them and why? Did they have any negative or positive experiences that later helped shape them into the adults they are now? Also, if they have any insights on the differences between US and British education.

Have you read Tobias Wolff's "Old School"? If you have not, you might enjoy it.

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Vincent. It would be interesting to hear more, and especially interesting to hear how your reunion goes in June.