Sunday, April 23, 2006

Things My Teachers Taught Me ...

I was a pre-school dropout.

My mom taught me to print my name when I was three years old. Preschool for me was about socialization more than learning any of the basics. I already had the basics down, thanks to mom who spent lots of time with me (and my brothers) when we were little little.

But on the second day of pre-school, when it was time for our snack, the grown-ups doled out glasses of grape juice. Except that they ran out of grape juice by the time they got around to me and tried to give me a glass of V8 juice instead. I tried one sip and decided that not only was I through with V8 juice, I was through with pre-school, too.

To this day, V8 juice has not passed these lips again. Vile crap.

I started kindergarten when I was four. I was excited. I remember my first day of school. We were each assigned a box of chunky crayons with our name written on the base of the box. The boxes were stored in a rack when we weren't coloring. And our first coloring assignment was a stoplight. Oooh, challenging. Red, yellow, green, yeah, I knew the drill. But when it was time to color the outside of the stoplight, I had a problem on my little four-year-old hands. In the real world, the outside of a stoplight was yellow-orange. I had no yellow-orange crayon. The yellow-orange crayon wouldn't show up until I graduated to a bigger box of crayons in a later grade. Orange was an option, but it wasn't quite right. So my little brain decided that if I couldn't be literal, I'd be completely different. I colored the outside of the stoplight blue. And it bugged me.

Mrs. Lang was my kindergarten teacher. When I got my picture back, my full first name written proudly in purple crayon across the top of the page, it had a star stamp on it and "Excellent!" written below the inky image. Excellent, maybe. But wrong.

As the year wore on, we graduated from our chunky crayons to a big box of crayon remnants. Many more options. So on the day that we had to color a picture of a bunny (on that buff, coloring-book paper), I was very excited that my literal self could capture reality and color the bunny's tail with a white crayon. Oh, the relief.

Until my picture was returned to me. With a frowny face at the top. And a note and and arrow by the bunny's bum that read, "What about the tail?"

Oh, that bitch. In hindsight, I should have marched right up to her polyester pantsuit and said, "Feel the paper. It's WAXY. Is it my fault that white crayon doesn't show up?" A frowny face. Indeed.

And then there was that day at recess. A light snow covered the playground but my eagle eye spotted a treasure. I scooped it up and ran over to Mrs. Lang to show her. "Look, Mrs. Lang! I found a nickel!" At that tender young age, when allowance was doled out in single coins, an unexpected nickel was a windfall. "You better let me hold it for you while you're outside," she said.

I don't have to tell you that I never got my nickel back.

First grade arrived just in time. Good riddance, Mrs. Lang. Hello, Mrs. Prinz. Mrs. Prinz made cute smiley faces (with an extra swoop at the top, like bangs swept aside) on our papers and had fabulous hair and, at the end of the year, let us have her markers. I loved Mrs. Prinz.

For second grade, I moved across the hall to Mrs. Skibinski's class. Every once in a while, I would go back to Mrs. Prinz's class and, for lack of a better word, tutor the first graders. I specifically remember taking little trinkets to incentivize them, including a small green plastic bus that I'd gotten in a box of Cracker Jack and a small pinecone that I'd found. But here's the kicker: I carried those items in my purse.

My purse. What second-grader carries a purse? And for what? All my cash and lipsticks?

My brothers warned me that I'd hate Mrs. Nemeth, my third-grade teacher. Liars. I loved her.

Mrs. Preban and Mr. Radtke (fourth and fifth grade) were fine. Mr. Radtke was getting a little long in the tooth, but he was a nice man. Easily confused, but nice. (My friend Tracy will no doubt post a comment here about his problem with spit.) He liked me. I could do no wrong in that man's eyes.

Mrs. Gradisher was my sixth-grade teacher. I adored her. Many didn't. She had a reputation for being a hard-ass, but we always got along well. We had to write in a journal every morning, and on Fridays, she'd collect them, and while we went to another class, she'd read them and write comments. We had nice chats that way.

I liked junior high. Mrs. Rosenstein, the smallest woman I'd ever seen, was my homeroom teacher. Mr. Weir, very clearly the first gay man I'd ever seen, shared a double classroom with her. Mrs. Engle was my well-to-do science teacher (she commuted from Chicago in a Lincoln Town Car), and Mr. Ridder was my cut-up social studies teacher. Oh, I almost forgot Mrs. Ross. She taught math. I've never liked math much, but she was a nice woman. I babysat for her a few times. Once a week, during my Language Arts period (tagged teamed by Rosenstein and Weir), I'd head down the hall with a few other kids to Mrs. Olson for "gifted class." We solved inane problems. Presumably, I was learning to be a "critical thinker."

Mom made me go to summer school each year before transitioning to a new school. It was a good idea. I had a month or two to get the new lay of the land, so when the first day of a new school rolled around, I wasn't freaked out. Smart woman, my mom. And I also got some required junk out of the way.

High school was fraught with all the usual high school crap. I had teachers I liked and teachers I nearly hated.

And I had Dave. English Teacher Dave as he's known today, so named for the year and a half he had me in his classes. The first half of Junior year and all of Senior. Senior Honors English. Yikes.

Dave had his own grading scale. In his classroom, you needed a 93 for an A. Damn, man. And if you couldn't score 70 percent, well, you just didn't pass. Dave demanded more from his students. He still does. And he gets it. Funny how kids will rise to meet expectations.

Today, Dave and I discuss his classes over dinner. Sometimes he's here. Sometimes I'm there. His wife travels a lot for work (she's also involved in education, and spends a lot of time in Springfield and beyond), so we'll often get together when he's temporarily single, and education is always a topic.

One night, here, he told me that he was considering dropping the research paper as a requirement. It was a sober disucssion. He was arguing that the kids he teaches today always struggle with the assignment and he wonders if there's any inherent value in it for them.

I told him that I thought he had to keep it as a requirement if only to send the message that he believed they could rise to the challenge. If he were to eliminate it just because it was hard, what would that say to them?

During Christmas break, he goes to the Art Institute. Any kids who want to show up get extra credit in his class. I met him and his wife there this year and was astonished at how many kids were waiting for us. As we walked through the galleries, I asked him if he had an assignment based on what they were seeing. He pointed out that the semester was over at that point. He had only to file grades. So why the Art Institute for extra credit?

"To give them the chance to see things they might not otherwise see," he said.


Damn. There's a teacher who cares about his kids. The paintings in the Art Institute have nothing to do with his curriculum. But those paintings are important as part of culture, as part of a broader human experience. And he just wanted to be sure they had the chance to see them, in case no one else had ever taken the time to make the introduction, in case those kids would someday visit without the promise of a slightly better grade and come to understand the world from the many varied perspectives of the artists in those halls.

Dave had a profound impact on my life then. And he has a profound impact on my life now.

So when I come across a story about the plight of education, I forward it to him and we chat about it.

The latest story was about kids in Illinois and the textbooks they're issued in some schools. Some are woefully out of date. Some are literally held together with rubberbands.

Dave's reply to the story? A story of his own: "... at Thorrnridge the English 4 classes are using books published in 1988. And they will use them next year too because there is only dough for English 3 texts this year. Those 1988 books are so shabby that I'll go back to the 1970's books next year - they are in better shape."

What the hell?

His colleagues gather at his house from time to time for drinks and kvetching. The stories I hear (he's always nice enough to invite me, despite my outsider status) scare the hell out of me. No Child Left Behind is doing nothing but binding educators' hands. Oh, wait, that's not true. There was a story recently about the unexpected segregation effect it's having on the education system. Swell.

Our legislators need to get off their Ivy-League asses and figure this thing out. No Child Left Behind is just adding to the problem. Just ask any teacher in the trenches. It's an embarrassment that there are school libraries in this country that can't afford books and today's kids are being taught with texts that still refer to the Soviet Union.

And while we're at it, let's start paying teachers what they're worth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are an outsider. I'm a teacher and NCLB isn't the problem, it's the administration. And teachers get paid extremely well for what they do.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, but dammit we were the coolest 6th grade recess door monitors ever! Yes, Mrs. Lang was quite the witch. Scary hairy mole-woman.
Readers, don't be fooled. Beth wasn't a total goody-two shoes. Remember the shoe box we buried out at recess and bonking Mr. Radke in the head-funny how HE apologized for that :0)

12:18 PM  

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