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Worms in the Apple

How come no one ever talks about the bad teachers?

Everyone loves to talk about their favorite teachers. Most of all teachers themselves, who would have us believe the profession is full of nothing but saintly souls who stay up all night affixing smiley faces to pages filled with sophomoric scrawl and martyr their own health and sanity for the good of their troublesome charges. There's plenty of that, of course. And plenty of heartfelt and thoroughly deserved tributes to prove it.

But we all know there's more to it, don't we? The National Education Association might not want to admit it, school board members might erupt in harrumphs and points of parliamentary procedure if you try to talk about it, but most anybody who spent a baker's dozen years in school (public or private, sacred or secular) can tell you the truth: there are some bad teachers out there. And they shape us just as much as the good ones. Here's some of our own memories.

I first had him for 10th grade English. I'd heard the rumors, how "tough" he was, how he tolerated no horseplay or backtalk or much of anything else. But I'd also heard that he was good, that he made you think, that he was interesting and interested and might actually teach you a thing or two. All of it turned out to be true—he was tough, and prone to occasional odd tangents, but he was also ferociously intelligent and genuinely passionate about the novels and essays and poetry we read. I owe whatever appreciation I have of T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost and Upton Sinclair and e.e.cummings and Henry David Thoreau entirely to him.

But then I had him again, in 12th grade, for what he called "A.P. English." It wasn't really an "A.P." class in the sense that we prepared for or were expected to take the A.P. English exam at the end of the school year. No, his goals for us were much grander. This was a college preparation class, a life preparation class, a curriculum in the world and how to deal with it. He wanted to explode our small-town suburban ideas, to show us how to think and feel and be—all very noble intentions.

But there was a problem, one that became increasingly apparent as the year wore on. He was a raging egomaniac. He didn't just want students. He wanted acolytes. He wanted followers. He wanted disciples. The first warning sign came early on, when he was explaining the course to us. He drew a picture on the chalk board of a cliff with a swamp at its base. Up on the cliff, he said, were all the great men and minds we would encounter that year—Plato and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Whitman and Swift. Down in the swamp, of course, was us, mere slimy tadpoles in Mr. J's scheme of the world. And there on the shore, he drew a stick figure with very long arms, reaching up to the top of the mountain and bringing down the wisdom of the ages to bestow on the unfortunate dwellers in the muck. He didn't have to tell us who the stick figure was.

Unfortunately for either us or him, our particular class had a fair number of strong personalities—egomaniacs in our own right, 17-year-olds who not only didn't want to listen to what much of anybody else had to say, but who had the snot-nosed, bald-faced gall and ability to articulate why we didn't think we should have to. (I wasn't even the worst offender in this category, not by a long shot, and that should tell you something.) It was not a good mixture.

Tensions mounted over the months, with various students egging him into red-faced shouting matches that left everyone embittered. He couldn't believe, he told us over and over again, how different we were from the previous year's class, with whom he had gotten on famously. We couldn't believe he expected us to sit still for his self-aggrandizing anecdotes (he loved to talk about his military service, although it evidently never took him off the army base) and ponderous platitudes about the way things were in the "real world" of college and beyond.

Things reached a crisis point in mid-spring, following a bizarre class exercise in which he told us to imagine we were stranded on a desert island with several dozen small children whom we had to care for. I don't remember the point of it all, but I do remember that it turned out to be some kind of pop-psychology experiment by which he intended to demonstrate to us our massive inadequacies as human beings. We were angry, and someone took the unusual step of calling a class meeting outside of class. We all decided to appoint a couple of the more diplomatic students to approach him with a list of grievances. But he still had a few followers, and by the time we showed up in the classroom, he was waiting for us with a sneer on his face. Did we really think, he asked us haughtily, that we could conspire against him behind his back? He had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room, clearing the floor, and placed one chair against the back wall, throne-like. He sat in the chair. We were to sit at his feet (like the small children we were, he told us). A few students refused and lounged arrogantly across the desktops. The rest of us sprawled reluctantly across the carpet and were subjected to a non-stop 45-minute screed about our rank arrogance and presumption and how we wouldn't amount to anything in college with that kind of behavior. One of my friends still has this entire lecture on tape.

At the end of that day, it was clear we had reached a total impasse. The remainder of the year passed in mostly grudging silence on both sides. He didn't talk to us more than he had to, and we said even less. We were all glad when the year ended. (I got an A, but it felt tainted and joyless.)

In some ways, though, he was right. He did prepare us for the outside world—a world where, most of us have come to learn, bitter and insecure men and women often try to make themselves feel big by making others feel small. It was a worthwhile lesson, I suppose. But one I'm hard-pressed to feel thankful for.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

The best teachers I had were, by and large, the ones I detested at the time because of their unwavering demands on us, their students. I had lots of those good ones throughout my schooling.

The worst, alas, was such a sweet woman that it's difficult, even with her long gone, to be too critical of her. I haven't the temerity to type her name in this context. To be fair, she taught the second-grade elementary class I should have skipped and probably would have, had it not been for school politics. My aunt was my first-grade teacher. The superintendent was my future uncle. I got no favors. It would have looked like favoritism to let me by.

So in 1948-49 I spent a school year dawdling around with material I already knew. That wasn't the teacher's fault, but Miss "X" was just too nice to teach. She was ineffective in her relationships with the other pupils as well. I know, because I had a lot of time to simply observe. She was there for years on end. And the second grade was pretty much a waste of a school year, sandwiched as it was between my aunt, a stern task mistress, and my third-grade teacher, a woman who had taught both my mother and father in fourth grade and whose skills were undiminished by time or by her unmellowed and considerable temper.

Here's to the tough ones. They were, by far, the best.

—Barry Henderson

I've had lots of bad teachers, but none who stand out as remarkably horrible. What I remember most is how weird and neurotic a lot of them were. You see, I spent 12 years in Catholic school, and although I am now a deeply committed agnostic, I'm pretty damn weird and neurotic myself. I suspect my Catholic school teachers had something to do with it.

One characteristic trait in Catholic school were the ever changing, arbitrary religious doctrines pushed on us each year, each usually contradicting earlier doctrines.

Some of these teachings caused great stress in my life, most notably the one that God would forgive a blasphemy against himself but would never forget a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which tortured me for a few years. When you imagine what a crime of thought is, haven't you just committed it?

The ancient Sister Pauline preached about diagramming sentences and sin with equal vigor. She explained to us how each time you sin you get a black mark on your soul. Menial sins could be burned away in purgatory, but all mortal sins must be forgiven before you die or you will burn in hell. Little babies go to limbo, a comfortable but nevertheless sad place because they would never get to see Jesus.

Mr. Germino was big on the book of Revelations, which he interpreted literally. (He also played us tapes of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" backwards and slowed down so we could hear the Satanic messages hidden there.)

They were all well meaning, I'm sure, but some of the things they told me deeply troubled me.

Catholic teachers get paid even less than those at public school, and I've always wondered if what drew some of them to the work was the fact they could slug their pupils. The slugging started in Ms. Trout's first grade class. She liked to sharply yank ears and hair, and whack knuckles with her wooden ruler—often merely for not knowing an answer.

The violence progressed as the years wore on, especially at an all boys' prep school. My geometry teacher picked up and dropped a classmate in the trash can for not having his homework. My religion teacher shoved another out the door, kicking his books behind him, all the while describing this boy's attitude, books, clothing, and body with the F-word modifier.

There are parents, teachers and even many former students out there who would attest that what kids need is a good whack on the behind to keep them in line. I don't know whether that's true. I was never hit much—I learned how to be good. But in classes where teachers smacked their students I was afraid to participate, talk or volunteer information for fear of doing something wrong: education was not about learning, it was about avoiding being hit. Far better were the teachers who tolerated a few shenanigans without losing control.

Joe Tarr

August 16, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 33
© 2001 Metro Pulse