As I mentioned in a previous post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked. We all have those stories. These are two of mine.
I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well. She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.
But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human. She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.
One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.
Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties? Not so simple.
I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties. I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.
A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.
I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud! It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid. I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done. I knew it was already my best work and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.
It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.
Then came seventh grade. Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories. In this, I was in my element. I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.
Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history. It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like our current Administration). I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia. That incident did intrigue me.
Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud. I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied. So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”
Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story? It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.
(Yes, it still makes me mad.)
There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that. And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice. I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.
I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.
The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.