Clean Your Mind



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!



5 thoughts on “Clean Your Mind

  1. Terry this is such a beautifully written piece and takes me back to my own schooling. I too remember the cane (ouch – yes alas our headmaster didn’t reserve it just for the boys). The memories that stayed with me though were the inspirational teachers and they taught me not only their subject but how to treat people respectfully. If we are to learn then we need to be inspired, not shamed into it.

  2. Sherlock Holmes was a believer in the brain having just so much storage room. Therefore
    he only concentrated on that which was necessary knowledge for his work. One time Watson was appalled about all the common knowledge Holmes knew nothing about and Homes
    explained something like: ” What the duce is it to me if the moon travels around the earth or the
    earth travels wrong the moon….. this is not knowledge I need.”

  3. I have happily forgotten all the geometry I never needed. Well, I didn’t get it in the first place. What a waste of brain space that I would rather have filled by Terri’s beautiful writings.

  4. I was with Terry in those schools and can verify the accuracy of her recall. A few times I was on the receiving end of the corporal punishment also known as the “rat’s tail” and it did hurt. I admit adolescence got the best of my behavior and I deserved to be corrected. Maybe a “time out” would have been better method. But at the same time I experienced teaching skills of some very talented teachers. The caste system Terry speaks of was blatant and convinced students they were in a lower social class and would be there for ever. It was so sad.

    1. We did have good teachers of course – I should have stressed that . (Would you LIKE to hear that rattled off list of all the English propositions, in alphabetical order? )
      The rat’s tail was made of rattan, remember, Mike?
      I imagine the caste system was maintained only on a very subconscious level by the adults but we all felt it. I remember at our reunion last year to hear other classmates recalling some kids were called Society and others written off as ‘Hoods’. Sickening to think of now…..

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