Monday, August 24, 2009

Teachers Making a Difference

It's impossible to share who I am today without a genuine tribute to some remarkable teachers along the way who gave me life skills to last a lifetime. What better place to tell their stories (and mine) than right here right now.

The first teacher was Miss Stidger. I have no clue what her first name was. My first grade year had been difficult. Just before school started, I broke my arm falling out of a tree. A cast covered all but the tips of my fingers. My handwriting was atrocious, made even worse by the fact that age 3 my parents had switched me from left to right handed. So my first grade teacher had told my parents in front of me that I had "developmental issues". Her gauge for this conclusion? My writing skills. It was not a good year at all.

But then came the second grade, and Miss Stidger was my teacher. She engaged all of us in the learning process. She read to us the story of Hansel and Gretel. I was so impressed I went home and rewrote the story, adding my own embellishments of course. It was 5 pages long and I took it to class. Miss Stidger shared it with everyone, and praised me while I turned red as a beet. This was something I was not accustomed to hearing at all. I sure liked it though. When she read to us, she made her own adaptations as well, and acted it out in ways that held our attention. She made school worth attending, something new at that point. The really bad teasing for me would not start until the next year, so this was the one year I really enjoyed school. I still struggled with hand writing and still do to this day. But from her I learned that there was more to life than good penmanship, and that I was not a failure. More important, her gift to me was the love of reading and of the imagination. Those are gifts that last a lifetime and for which I am so grateful. The following years socially were excruciating, but by reading, by using my imagination, by writing my own stories, a better world could be created than the one in which I lived. Some years later, I graduated from high school. My photo was in the newspaper, for I had graduated from a hospital bed, a result of a motorcycle accident. After I was released, one day so many years later, Miss Stidger dropped by my house for a visit. It was a happy reunion, and a chance to thank her for being just the woman she was.

Move from elementary school to eighth grade at Hogg Jr. High in Tyler. My English teacher was Mrs. Lowe. I don't remember her first name today, and not sure if I knew back then. She was tough as nails. On the first day she said, "We are going to learn lots this year. At the top of my list is grammar. Here is a copy of the grammar guide I need you all to purchase. You will know it cover to cover before this year is out."

She meant it too. We did lots of writing. Even our tests were often essay tests, and she expected the same level of perfection with grammar in tests as she did in our essays. If I made a grammar mistake, I would be required to look up and write the grammar rule and turn it in to her.

But it was not just grammar for us to learn that year. She would not abide by sloppy thinking. "Something is not this or that way just because you say so. Show me. Prove it to me." Occasionally she would engage us in a particularly fiery topic. In a time before women's liberation, one of the hottest was the day she announced "Women are superior to men. Look at Madam Curie. What a mind. What a person. What do you all think?"

The boys lined up of course to defend their sex. I was trying to stay silent and unnoticed. One said, "Of course men are superior. Look at who all has been president? Who are most of the scientists? Who are our leaders?"

"What makes men better? Just because our society is skewed against women does not make them better. Each defender of the male sex got a book report to write for not using adequate reasoning. The girls in class did not fare much better. Either they went along with what the boys said, or tried to argue for women without any facts to back them up. They got reports as well.

Then she looked over at me. "What do you think?"

All eyes were on me and I hated it. I opened my mouth. "I don't think it is that men or women are superior. It is more individual and some individuals do better at some things than others. Madam Curie was a very good chemist, but could she run a country? Another woman might be able to run a country better. We haven't had a chance to find out yet." Actually we still haven't but I've a hunch I was on the right track there. "I know some girls who play softball much better than I do. We are all human, and each have our own sets of skills."

She smiled. That time I got it right, and she added 5 badly points needed to my score. She was teaching us skills in presenting ideas cogently and requiring us to think critically. Critical thinking I believe is one of the highest of attributes and too many teachers miss the mark in teaching students then and now.

In High School, my junior year Bob Wyche taught me American History. Then my senior year he taught World Political Geography. It is this latter class I want to talk about. It was not only about political geography. It was an excuse to take us out of the provincialism of Tyler, Texas and to expose us to the world of ideas. We learned about the Greek philosophers. We did indeed talk about politics and how geography influences our politics. We were expected to read a lot outside of class. Every one of us had a subscription to the New York Times, where part of each day's class would dwell. He invited speakers from ivy league universities like Harvard and Princeton and Yale.

One assignment stands out in my mind. "Pick two newspapers, any two newspapers. Read them daily for a month. Then I want you to write a five page comparison of the editorial opinions of the two papers, using nothing but their choices of wire articles on the front page. Do not use or reference any editorial articles at all." What an exercise! We were learning to evaluate news stories, not just by what they shared, but what the paper decided not to cover. Critical thinking 101. He succeeded as well in taking us to another realm, a larger world of ideas that were not framed by local churches or the Tyler Courier Times. After class he would meet several of us at Heaton's Irion Drug Store in Bergfeld Center. There at the soda fountain ( we had those back then) we would convene the daily session of the History Club, which was not just about history, but a chance to discuss and explore all sorts of directions and ideas out loud. Like a b.s. session, but with a higher standard of academic discourse. Like our very own salon, not official in any way, but there the learning continued.

Finally I must mention Werna Harrison, my senior English teacher. Every day we were called to write. The first day she passed out texts she had purchased herself for our use. On the first page: Creative Writing: A College Text. We wrote essays and press articles and short stories, even stage plays. Part of each class was involved in discussing and critiquing our work. She was meticulous and demanding. Many found her quite odd, and the students broke her heart that year during the senior skit. But it was Werna Harrison to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Ideas not written down are lost forever. She gave me skills that would keep me sane for many years, then give me great pleasure after that.

We all have our own stories of people who made a difference in our lives. I have others as well. But these stand out among all my teachers over 12 years in Tyler, Texas. Thank you each of you for making a difference.

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