If you could clean out your mind the way you clean out your house what amazing amounts of room you would have – to learn physics, say, or Italian. I would love to learn Italian! Even hearing the music of it you can’t believe the people speaking it are just answering basic questions like, “What time does the train come?” In with phrases like “Buongiorno!” and “Dopo di lei” I say! Out with that memorized list of English prepositions that got stapled into my brain by my Seventh Grade teacher with her thin cloud of dark hair hovering like a mist over her pale shiny scalp.
She was our English teacher but she doubled as the headmaster’s secretary and I can’t help but think she must have found that second role difficult, since the man saw himself as the sole person competent enough to save the nation.
I know he WANTED to educate us — I had him for Latin my last year at the school — but I also know he wanted to punish us.
He would single us out and make us stand trembling beside our desks one by one while he hammered us with unanswerable questions about politics.
“What did the American voter THINK, electing that fool Roosevelt who saddled us with this crippling national debt?”
We didn’t know. We were 12 years old! And it was the 1960s, not the 1930s!
He ranted anyway.
Worse yet, he believed in corporal punishment and how sick we all felt seeing the male teachers swing back their special wooden paddles and bring them down hard across our classmates’ tender fingertips.
The teachers used only their paddles, but that headmaster favored the rod, which he kept stored in a special solution to keep it supple. He used it mostly on boys whose families were poor and unlikely to question him. I noted even then that he never dared cane Dr. Black’s son, or the son of Attorney Smith.
But let me turn away now from that dark past and focus on the good and real teachers, now, at the school year’s start.
The good and real teachers never abuse their power. They are firm but they are kind.
They are strict about keeping order, but they do so in a gentle and measured fashion.
Nobody gets targeted in a real teacher’s classroom. Nobody gets shamed. The good and real teacher will also tell you the truth about yourself when you need to hear it.
I think of the time my high school French teacher told the whole class it looked like Mademoiselle Sheehy was “growing a little BIG for her breeches.”
I was the show-off-y Mademoiselle Sheehy, and I knew she spoke the truth.
The lady never raised her voice; never brought her personal demons into the classroom.
I remember her dictating vocabulary quizzes to us that one autumn and noticing how her gaze would lift away from us and drift out the window as we scribbled our answers. She had just lost her life’s companion to an early death but that occasional faraway look was the only sign we ever had of her heartache.
I can still see her now, small and compact. She stood for the whole class and spoke every word of t.e lesson in French until even the slowest of us got so we could think in that language.
All this was years ago but it is as if that teacher is with me still, correcting and encouraging me. This is what good and real teachers do. Lucky children who sit now before the ones like those!