A Teacher’s Influence is Forever
Over the years I’ve heard many people make the statement “I didn’t learn a damn thing in high school,” followed by statements of adamant accusation. Usually directed at the teachers.
I’ve never dared respond to this on the spot, but this is a good place to put my rejoinder.
The first statement is true for many people. The flaw is in the definition of causation. In thirty one years of trying to educate teens from 13 to 18 years of age, I came across many students who were not going to learn anything. This often, but not always, had nothing to do with me.
Adults tend to forget the tumult of the teen-age years. There may be issues at home, or drugs, and (usually) the overwhelming angst of teen life where any fact or event must be filtered through a mind that is overwhelmed by… itself. Things are changing, every day. Physically, mentally, morally, socially, and on and on, teens live in a boiling stew of conflicting emotions, family history, hormones, expectations of self and others, and social upheaval. This is true for those with the best of preparation. I was fortunate to have excellent parents, a happy home life, no worries about food or money, enough looks and athletic ability to get by, but not enough of either to get me off track. There were still times of difficulty.
Many are not so lucky. I once had a 9th grade girl come to me because her single parent father had thrown her out of the house. Her crime? She was usually at home all weekend cleaning the house and doing the chores. Her father was “out,” usually engaged in activities that involved alcohol. Lots of alcohol. One Sunday he came home late in the afternoon and asked her in his usual belligerent tone what she planned to make for dinner. Exhausted from other things, she asked him if he would make dinner for once. That was it. He forcibly ejected her from the home and told her never to return. Now she was asking friends for a place to stay. She had no clothes, and no money. How was she to focus on what was happening in school? There are, of course, thousands of examples, so let’s move on.
The sunny side of the coin. I had a wonderful time in junior high school and high school, and I’m sure that had a direct bearing on my choice of my first profession. School was fun. The outside world looked scary. Why not stay where I had fun?
I had many good teachers, and a couple who were merely OK, and one or two who were terrible. There again, when someone complains that a teacher was horrible, it might be that the teacher in question was horrible for them, at that time. A horrible teacher can be horrible universally, but often it is just a bad personality match.
A teacher with 30 students makes several dozen decisions every class period over and above the lesson. Situations vary wildly, often during the same day. There was a fight in the lunchroom. Sally and Billy are in love. Prom is only 4 months away. And many more. When you make several dozen decisions an hour you will inevitably make the wrong choice from time to time. You have a situation with a student, and you need to move the class along. How will you respond? Supportive and caring? Harsh discipline? Ignore it for now? You have two seconds to decide. And so on.
Most people have a favorite teacher, and the lucky, several. I was lucky. The band director was fantastic. My 9th grade math teacher and football coach was a hero to me. I admired Mr. Baumann, the good looking teacher with the gorgeous girlfriend AND a 1959 Corvette. I did not have Mr. Baumann for any class except study hall one semester. I later bought a 1958 Corvette. Coincidence?
Real impact came from several, but especially Mr. Hoenig, my English teacher.
I was a tremendous smart ass. (In those days only?) In any case, Mr. Hoenig had figured out what I discerned many years later. There are two kinds of smart asses. The more usual kind is a kid who wants attention and is not getting it at home or anywhere else. As social creatures, most humans who are starved for positive attention will seek out negative attention, as it is preferable to the vast chasm of loneliness that it is to be ignored. Those sorts of students must not be allowed to disrupt the class, and can be dealt with quickly and at times unkindly. There is more to it, but let’s move on.
The more interesting smart asses speak out and make a funny or distracting remarks related to what is being taught. These are the rarest gold to the savvy teacher. Their comments bring a different slant to what it being taught, and perk up everyone’s attention. You need to run with the ball they have just tossed you.
I once had a girl who was really funny, and also very smart. She also had the greatest laugh in the world. An accomplished actress, dancer, and cheerleader, she was “on” at all times. Occasionally she would make an impish remark and I would respond in kind. We often got into what amounted to a five minute improve skit based on the material. On one occasion we got so carried away that we left everyone in the class behind, until one student asked “Um, could we sort of get back to what we were doing?”
Mr. Hoenig took in my smart ass comments, and those of others, and used them.
He also taught me to write, and more importantly, told me I was good at it. That is so important.
I once had a boy who self-identified as a football player. Period. I gave a creative writing assignment, and I could tell from the content that he had written it himself. It was really good. I gave him an A and wrote something like “This is terrific!” on his paper. When I handed the assignments back I was confused because he was glaring at me with intense hostility. He looked like he was about to get out of his chair and beat me to a bloody pulp. I walked back to him and he said, his lips tense, “Are you teasing me?” Here was a young man who had never been told he was good at anything, except football, to the degree that he had a hard time accepting that others thought he could write. I assured him I was totally serious, and the rest of the class he sat with his head far away in thought. Always wondered what happened to him.
Mr. Hoenig was fun to be with outside of the classroom as well. We had an “all star” flag football game between selected members of intramural teams and the faculty. I remember two things. The faculty trounced us. Badly. We could not believe that these “old guys” could run and pass that well. Of course, many of them were athletes from 25 to 35 years of age, which we could not see in our self-absorption. Until that day.
In any case, neither Mr. Hoenig nor I were fleet of foot, so we played against each other on the line. On one play I leapt back as if to pass block, and when he began to rush I lowered my shoulder and drove my forearm into his ample gut. I think I felt his backbone as he folded over and the air came whooshing out. It was awesome. To his everlasting credit, he told me the next day that he thought that was pretty funny, and complimented me on it.
On another occasion we were to write a poem. I chose to make mine “racy,” shall we say. To my horror he began to read the poems out loud without previewing them first. I NEVER did this in my teaching career, perhaps due to this. I was horrified as he read out each inappropriate line. I thought I would be suspended for sure. After class I met with some friends across the hall in the lavatory and we were shouting and yelling all sorts of things about this. Mr. Hoenig walked in and the room became as silent as a coffin. He said “My fault for not reading it first,” and walked out. That was it.
Forty one years later, I was in my final semester of teaching. One day I had an epiphany. I realized I had been teaching exactly like he did – for over three decades. With some research, I got his phone number back in Minnesota and called him to say thanks.
I introduced myself as David Preston, class of 1965, and he said “Oh yes, I remember you.”
“Mr. Hoenig,” I told him, “I’ve been teaching for 31 years. I often run into former students. I always tell them I remember them whether I do or not.” As a side note, it is amazing how often I do remember former students, even though they may look completely different. Mr. Hoenig laughed and went on to explain that he really did remember me, because I had written a haiku my senior year that was pretty good, and he had been using it as an example ever since. He had just retired the previous year, having hung in there longer than I did. He mailed me the poem, and it really was pretty good.
Fast forward another 15 years. My class had its 50th reunion, and I chose a motorcycle trip instead of attending. One of my classmates put out the e-mail addresses of a few of the teachers who would be attending the reunion. I wrote to Mr. Hoenig expressing my regrets, and I also mentioned my web site, where he could see the damage his teaching had wrought on the Internet. That was last August.
He wrote back the other day:
It is pure antisocial behavior that I didn’t reply to this until now. MEA CULPA
At the risk of being obvious, I neglect my letters. (arthritis notwithstanding)
I read your writings and am impressed with your body of work. I personally
avoided motorcycles in fear of becoming a vagrant.
My old age is filled with losing but I plod on with what I have left.
I am aware I’ve assembled these sentences with no variety.
I give myself a C- for this reason.
If I have offended you by my tardiness, forgive me.
I remain your old retired English teacher.
This is what I wrote back:
Tardy perhaps, but being really humorous trumps all! (Apologies for the use of the word ‘trump’ in any form). And is being a vagrant necessarily bad? I have a former student who was an 8th grader in 1969, my first year of teaching. We ran into each other 40 years later and now he is one of a small cadre of riding buddies I enjoy. Arthritis is a bitch – so far I have been spared most of the agonies. A little Aleve or aspirin here and there does help. My most serious issue is my right knee, operated on twice and now showing what happens when a lot of the pieces have been removed. That all came about from basketball, by the way, NOT motorcycles! 🙂
Just sent my 8th book and 4th novel off to the friend who functions as my publisher on Amazon. Susan says this is my best novel yet, but then she said that the last time…
I consider your epistle to be free verse poetry, and therefore you still get an A!
The most remarkable part of all this? I was so elated just to hear from him, and walked around feeling special for the rest of the day.
My teacher had noticed me.
Copyright 2016 David Preston