Monday, October 9, 2017


Teachers.  We have all had them even if we didn't attend school.  Many of us have been shaped tremendously by them.  Some of my best qualities and some of my worst have come from their time in my life.

My first great teacher was in 6th grade.  Which really is a travesty.  After speaking to other people I have found that I have been incredibly lucky in my wide assortment of great teachers.  Unfortunately none of those were in the first 5 years of my education.  I wonder what kind of lasting damage could have been assuaged had I had a great instructor before then.  I wonder what kind of life I would have lead had Mrs. Blackwell not taught me in 6th grade at all. 

By the time I reached the 6th grade I had gone through a few major transitions that didn't do me any great favors except for the fact that they lead to me a group of astonishingly great friends.  I attended a private school in Kindergarten and first grade as I lived in a "tough" neighborhood at the time.  I don't really know what that meant.  Many of my friends say I live in a "tough" neighborhood now.  The cynic in me says that this probably just meant that many of my peers had I gone to public school would have been brown more than I would have been in physical danger going to public school.  The private school I attended was, I imagine, a more psychically and spiritually dangerous environment but it did, from an early age, teach me the religious cynicism which has served me well over the years and what I consider one of my defining traits.  I also had to actually read and communicate what I read starting in kindergarten, which also stood me in great stead through my life.

After moving to the suburbs in the second grade it became quickly apparent that the high academic standards of the atrocious private school and the year I was held back to meet them meant that I was a head taller and a grade ahead of my fellow scholars.  So about halfway through the year I skipped up to third grade.  Many people would think that this was a significant honorary advancement for the young student but it had really just taken a very insecure, and now obese, nerd from one new environment to another.  I had gone from just starting to make friends to be all alone in an environment where the peer groups were already established.  It is not entirely coincidental that this was the year that I started consuming volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia like other kids consume twinkies and read The Hobbit for the first time.  Books show much more compassion than children tend to.  So although I cemented my social position in this strange year as never being the popular kid, it also ensured that I was the most well read.  I stumbled into learning cursive halfway through the alphabet and my penmanship, never something to write home about in the first place, didn't fully recover until I re-taught myself to write in college.  Both of my teachers this year were not bad teachers, and I really think my 2nd grade teacher cared about me and my academic success, which is why she initiated me skipping grades in the first place, but very little of that year do I remember except for the books and the constant feeling of embarrassment and isolation.

Fourth and Fifth grade I met Kurt and Cory who were better friends than I deserved and helped me to make many less and much less severely bad life choices than had I not met them.  What I forsook in quantity of friendships I more than made up for in quality.  I had the same teacher both years in a split classroom.  In the crystal clear hindsight of adulthood I can see that the elderly teacher had trouble maintaining two distinct lesson plans and a large class of malcontents.  Those two years primarily left me with a seething bitterness towards that woman who could never see anything good in me that took years to dissipate.

Then Mrs. Blackwell came on the scene.  Mrs. Blackwell rode rodeo and would come into class with the rattlesnake she had decapitated with a .45 revolver while feeding her animals at night.  What really made Mrs. Blackwell stand apart from the teachers I had up to that point was the fact that she made a shocking number of her students care, in large part because she did.  Instead of relegating me to the trouble makers corner as most of the school staff at this point had done, she put me in the advanced mathematics and reading groups.  I wrote the first thing that ever made me cry as I wrote it in her class, and saw the tears in her eyes when I was made to read it to the class.  She was the first teacher I took risks for.  Not because I wanted to be one of the great authors that I spent so much time reading, I was going to be a heart surgeon after all, but because I wanted to give her back material that cost me something.  Reading that story now it is utter garbage and I can't for the life of me see why it made her cry but the story, like her influence, never left me.

Most of my jr high teachers I hardly remember.  In large part because I was too busy feeling that strange uncomfortable anxiety that is the burden of so many in those years.  But I had a few standouts.  Mr. Tracy, my 7th grade English teacher, I think actually liked the things I wrote, even if they tended to be simply be mediocre sword buckling adventures.  He made me memorize a poem for the first time, Poe's Annabel Lee.  I have Poe's complete written works on my bookshelf today because of that poem.  My 7th Grade history teacher, though I don't recall his name, told my parents I marched to the beat of my own drummer which simultaneously reinforced my incredible feelings of isolation as well as soared my heart with a strange pride. 

Some of my teachers through those years were not so great.  My 7th grade math teacher wouldn't allow me to take algebra because I was bored in her class and had a C because I never did the homework, even though my test grades were among the highest in the school.  She lacked Mrs. Blackwell's insight and I lacked the tenacity to make that happen anyway.  My 8th grade history teacher encouraged my class to make fun of me when I naively tried to correct what I thought was her misspeaking in front of the class.  She was just wrong, however, and allowed the class to laugh at me teaching me a valuable lesson in keeping my mouth shut.  A lesson I have actively practiced nearly as much as I should have.

I had an assortment of very good teachers in High School who were able to look past the awkward smart ass in me and see something else.  For them I am eternally grateful.  They afforded me all sorts of privileges and opportunities that I would have completely bypassed had I had more of the ordinary sort of instructor.  The good ones almost, but not entirely, erased the damage of the bad.

It amazes me now at how much those moments, those few memories which have survived the years, have shaped me.  The only reason I try to write at all are those times that the Blackwells, Tracys, and Kilmers out-scream the voices my less wonderful teachers left in my head.  Now as a dad I am all too aware of the things I say in a heated moment that I know no apology will erase the stain of.  Those great teachers have instilled in me a desire to help those smart ass kids who are simply bored, not bad.  But all the while those other voices try to argue for my shortcomings, my laziness, and my insecurities.  Luckily for me (on top of some pretty seriously helpings of privilege and means) I have come to the place where I have a decent job that gives me the time to sit down and write these thoughts down.  My only challenge now is to point my children and others down a path that will hopefully surpass my own.  Hopefully I can provide a few voices that will someday argue for their greatness, their courage, their kindness. 

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