Friday, October 21, 2011

The Worst Teacher I Ever Had

This was written after I'd read her obituary...but it's not the kind of memory that needs to be read at a funeral. By now enough time has gone by that only local readers will remember which of my departed former teachers was "Miss Smith."

This story is for students who hate a teacher—I mean, hate having her or him as a teacher—and think the teacher hates them back; who think their teacher never was very good, and is now completely incompetent; who probably aren’t cruel people and don’t want to hurt the teacher, exactly, but think the teacher would have to be happier in just about any other line of work. I had one of that kind. I share these memories of her in case they may help you.
According to the obituary notice she was the last of her family, but just in case she has a living relative somewhere, I’ll call her Miss Smith. She had parents; she lost them early in her life. She had step-parents; she lost them early too. She had some half-brothers and step-sisters and half-nieces and so on; they, too, all died young. So far as was known, by the time I met her, Miss Smith was alone in the world.

Miss Smith was born with a gift for precise details like numbers and spelling. This made her kind of intelligence almost exactly opposite to mine; I was born with a sort of mild dyslexia that didn’t keep me from learning to read early and well, but does generate random mistakes whenever I do anything with numbers. Maybe that was why Miss Smith, who had taught fifth-grade math for twenty-two years, was my all-time least favorite teacher, and I must have been close to her least favorite fifth-grader.
Then again there might have been other reasons. Miss Smith went to college during the years when girls and women were doing everything on the home front, then joined the workforce at a time when these women were being told to go back to the kitchen and open up more civilian jobs for veterans. Miss Smith had the right type of brain to have been at least an accountant, if not a research scientist, but in her day jobs were advertised to either males or females only. Jobs for females who were good with numbers tended to involve teaching fifth-grade math.

Older people said Miss Smith had been young and pretty, and eager to teach fifth-grade math, for a year or two. Then she must have realized that she was going to spend the rest of her life going over and over fifth-grade math assignments.
The principal of the school was, like about half the people in our town, related to me. Not closely. In fact, since he was trying to get nominated for elective office by diligent work for the Democratic Party, and nearly all my close relatives were active Republicans, he was barely on speaking terms with my close relatives. In those days people believed in both positive and negative discipline. A good principal was supposed to stir people up with appeals to their pride, make people admire him and try to win his approval, and also be able to make them feel miserable with a word...and also, if a word wasn’t enough, address the Board of Education to the Seat of Learning. Our principal did all those things well. His relatives knew better than to expect any mercy if we did the things that brought other kids into contact with the Board of Education. The principal, however, had special standards for his relatives, so we were familiar with the Board of Education too. We thought it was unfair. We thought he hated us, and the feeling was mutual.

As a fifth-grader I thought the principal might have told Miss Smith to give me a hard time. Later, when I got to know some of the other teachers that age socially, they suggested that she might have given me a hard time as a way of getting back at the principal.
Then again, it seemed to me by that time, maybe she hadn’t even been trying to give me an especially hard time. As a fifth-grader I heard the insults Miss Smith hurled at me as being nastier things to say than the things she said to other kids. I got things like, “You made a mistake like that! Well, I thought you were supposed to be intelligent!” Other kids got things like, “One stupid mistake after another! Is that how that brother of yours got into jail?” Maybe everybody else thought they were the fifth-grader Miss Smith detested most, too.
It’s still true to say that the easiest way to define my demographic generation, elsewhere known as “baby boomers,” in my home town is to ask middle-aged people if we remember Miss Smith. People who were probably part of the same generation in their individual families, but who were “war babies,” are the ones who remember her as young and pretty. Baby boomers remember her as a miserable, spiteful old soul who made all of us hate math, at least temporarily, even if we had special gifts for math.
I don’t even remember the line of verbal abuse Miss Smith used to make one particular girl literally sick with fear. The girl, who had been my friend, had beautiful long blonde hair. Flu was going around. When ordered to work out a problem on the chalkboard the girl quavered, “I don’t feel well.”

Miss Smith yelled, “You’d feel better if you’d done your homework! Get on with it!” Blondie set up the problem, turned around to demonstrate, and vomited all over her beautiful hair. She was never again recognized as a good student, and she never again wore her hair longer than collar length. After escaping fifth grade she repeated a year, perhaps on purpose, to be in a class where people didn’t remember how the worst thing a fifth-grader can imagine had happened to her. When I met her again in high school, she was depressed and overweight and didn’t seem to want to talk to me.

However, back then verbal cruelty was considered a good teaching technique, typical of the best schools. If a parent had complained about a teacher calling a child stupid the universal reply would have been, “How else do children learn when they’re acting stupid? They’ll hear worse than that if they ever get jobs.”

The school system supported “tenure.” Miss Smith had that. So did a good half of the other teachers, who used verbal abuse too...but they used it only occasionally, when kids really were doing something stupid, and tempered it with encouragement and good will. Miss Smith seemed to lack any ability to understand the concept of good will. So by the time I was in the fifth grade, students and parents were starting to suspect that something might be wrong with Miss Smith, beyond her manners.
She had never been tall or thin. In my fifth-grade class, only one boy was actually taller than Miss Smith. In my brother’s fifth-grade class, several kids were taller than Miss Smith. People had started calling her “Goose Neck” because, “when she yells, she sticks her neck out.” It was true. Trying to straighten her head on her down-bent neck only called attention to Miss Smith’s swollen thyroid area. With hindsight I realize that having such dramatic cases of osteoporosis and goiter would have made anyone feel bad.
By the time my brother was in the fifth grade, students were quite sure Miss Smith was losing her least on her job. One of the boys who were taller than she was talked back, my brother reported, and Miss Smith charged down the aisle and tore the sleeve off his shirt. “It’s a fad,” I explained to our parents. “A lot of the boys are wearing grungy old shirts that will fall apart if you pull on them. They tear sleeves and strips off each other’s shirts.” Our parents still didn’t approve of a teacher participating in such horseplay.
A new flavor of soda pop appeared on the market. As a promotion, one morning before school, a disc jockey offered a free six-pack of the drink to the first person who called in with the right answer. After the commercial break the d.j. announced that Miss Smith had won the prize. “Lucky for you,” my parents said. “She’ll probably buy a lot of little paper cups and let everyone in your class have a taste. You won’t have to waste your pocket money to find out what the new soda pop tastes like, after all.”
After school we asked my brother how he liked the new soda pop. “I don’t know. I didn’t get any. None of the kids did. She brought that six-pack to school all right, and she sat there at her desk just guzzling one can after another.”
“Six cans of soda pop in one day?” I couldn’t imagine such gluttony. “She’s not as tall as I am. She would have been sick.”
“She’s too mean to be sick,” my brother said, “but she took a few extra breaks during the day.”
It was hard to believe some of the stories my brother told about this teacher. He hadn’t told lies about other teachers, but nobody could imagine even Miss Smith doing the things my brother and his classmates insisted she was doing. “Well, she’s losing her mind,” my brother insisted, “and if the principal can’t make her retire, then we ought to do it. The other teachers may be what the School Board could get for low wages, but Miss Smith is crazy.”
Older members of our generation were protesting all kinds of things back then. “Question authority” was the motto some of the more drug-damaged college kids yowled, as some of them held the deans of their colleges hostage at gunpoint, and some of the teachers dithered about how it was normal for young people to rebel against the older generation.

My family were lucky; our elders cared about us, and listened to us, and my brother and cousins and I all felt that it was possible to question authority in a polite way. Nevertheless, one of our cousins had organized a successful protest of a policy all the high school girls hated, and my brother and I had participated in a protest some of my junior-high friends organized to change a policy our neighborhood found discriminatory. My brother, though three years younger and two inches shorter than I was, could generally keep up with me. Maybe he wanted to show that he could organize a protest too.
Maybe it was the ad hominem quality of the protest that revulsed the principal so much. The successful protests had been against policies not people. Fifth-graders probably couldn’t have been mobilized to attack the concept of tenure as binding even when teachers obviously needed help, but they could be organized around the idea that Miss Smith needed to retire. Their plan was to drive poor Miss Smith even further around the bend, so that even the principal would have to admit she was no longer fit to teach fifth-grade math. She had, after all, taught fifth-grade math in the same room for twenty-four years. So their mission was to become impossible to teach. That assignment was easily within the capacities of all the fifth-graders.
More than the other teachers, Miss Smith was not impressed when students had mastered the material assigned, or willing to move on to something that might be new to them. More than the other teachers, Miss Smith wanted to see neat little folders of finished homework assignments. Everyone we knew, including adults, agreed that this regimentation was stupid; fifth grade wasn’t supposed to be like the Army. “So we’re on strike. None of us is doing any homework.”
Sometimes Miss Smith was supposed to lead the fifth-graders in outdoor exercises. Our school didn’t have much of a physical fitness program, but did give “fitness tests” once in each term. Anyone who “passed” all the fitness tests qualified for President Kennedy’s Fitness Award, but since grades for that marking period were averaged in with automatic A’s from the other two marking periods, nobody actually failed Physical Fitness.

Miss Smith was, however, supposed to teach to the test, so she went out on the playground and stretched and flapped and screamed, trying to drill the students. They threw themselves into the drills with competitive glee, proudly reporting which ones had done a hundred or more exercises before they’d had to pause for breath. “That old Miss Smith could only do nine jumping-jacks...only three sit-ups...and everybody left her behind when we ran laps, and she didn’t finish even one lap. We laughed at her.”
My father actually seemed to enjoy the homework strike, and the general idea of protesting a teacher’s unfitness to teach, but this was going too far. “You should never make fun of people who are weaker than you.”
“It’s not for being weaker than I am. It’s for pretending we need her to teach us how to do something every single one of us can do better than she can.”
Class elections were held on schedule. My brother was nominated for class president, he reported. Miss Smith didn’t want her chief enemy elected president, so she jumped in, “He can’t be class president, because I just appointed him class janitor. Pick someone else!”
“Being president of the fifth grade is nothing. Don’t waste your time arguing about that.”
“Who’s arguing? I am the president. Ask anybody.”
After a few marking periods, some of the parents ordered their children to surrender. My brother regretfully excused people from the homework strike if their parents had told them to back out. “There are other ways,” he said meaningfully.
The other ways seemed to work. By the third marking period, it seemed, Miss Smith was losing control of her temper almost daily. According to my brother, she screamed, jabbered in “the unknown tongue,” tore sleeves and collars off shirts, kicked children in the shins, and yanked on their hair and ears, at the drop of a hat. Or, more precisely, at the synchronized drop of one pencil after another all around the room...
Her efforts to micromanage the class lost all pretense of fairness. One rainy day a schoolbook was observed on a ledge below the window, rapidly getting soaked. Everyone could tell her how it got there: some other boy had picked up my brother’s book and thrown it out the window. Miss Smith rounded on my brother. “Then crawl out the window and get it!”
“I didn’t put it there.”
“You’re responsible for that book! That book is school property! Get out there and pick it up!”
My brother had a feverish cold. Also, though brave, he was immobilized by vertigo. He didn’t explain this to Miss Smith.
People often claimed to think that, when his relatives had little talks with the principal, we told him how we thought the school ought to be run. They were wrong. There was occasionally some chance of convincing the principal that we were delirious and needed to be sent home, but usually all the talking was done by the principal and the Board of Education. As in, “Are you a coward [WHACK] and a thief [WHACK]? Who did you think was going to pick up that book for you? [WHACK] Miss Smith?”
That much I could personally vouch for. The principal talked that way to girls, too, if they were relatives of his. Everyone saw him greet us by our first names and even pat us, in the corridors. On one occasion people had even seem him march me back into the cafeteria—I had actually left because the close damp air and the odor of the hot lunch were making me queasy, not because two silly girls had laughed at my queasiness—and call out the offenders’ names, and tell me to tell him if anyone else gave me any kind of trouble. But I knew that what he was doing was demonstrating the attitude our family were supposed to take toward lesser mortals. I was not above tattling to more sympathetic, motherly-type teachers, but I knew that tattling to the principal would get me another encounter with the Board of Education.
“It’s not that I can’t get through the window, sir. I can’t see. I get vertigo. My father does too. The doctor said it runs in the family.”
“Well, what would your father do about that? [WHACK] What do you think Helen Keller does? [WHACK]” (In the interest of survival, my brother would not have reminded the principal that Helen Keller had died.) “Look out and see where the book is, then go out and feel for it with your hand. You can do that much toward acting like a human being, can’t you?”
So my brother did. The rain was still pounding down. The outside temperature was about forty degrees Fahrenheit. The book was still in one piece, but only barely. My brother sat through the rest of the day in wet clothes and wet shoes. By the end of the day he was shivering and glassy-eyed, and determined that winning this battle was going to cost Miss Smith the war.
When he went back to school, Miss Smith obviously thought my brother had deserved to be ill. They locked horns again within hours.

“This kid had done his homework, or part of it, but he couldn’t find it. Miss Smith yelled at him in the morning. Then we went out for recess, the janitor came in and swept the floor, and when we came in the guy’s paper was on my desk. He’d worked five out of ten problems, four of them wrong. He hadn’t signed his name to that. Who would have? Only when Miss Smith asked what I was looking at, I held it up, and the stupid kid hollered, ‘That’s my homework!’ Miss Smith wouldn’t even change his grade when she saw that he’d got one out of ten answers right. She just accused me of trying to copy his paper. I said that in the first place I don’t do homework for her, and in the second place I don’t cheat, and in the third place, if I did, I would’ve known better than to copy that. So she told the principal I was cheating and calling her a liar.”
On the last day of school, some of the girls gushed out sentimental promises to come back and visit their dear old teachers in the future. Nobody ever made such a promise to Miss Smith, so she had time to inform my brother, “That wet book you brought in was completely unusable and had to be destroyed. Your parents will have to buy all your schoolbooks next year.”
The bizarre part of this story was that, instead of urging Miss Smith to retire, the principal urged her to go on teaching. “We can’t let those little Yippies run you off, Miss Smith! Schools may cave in to that sort of demonstration up North, but we don’t...”
She was loathed. She lived in a house on the main street of town, and when you walked past that house, even if you were a high school girl trying to “act like a lady,” you spat on the pavement. The goiter must have been treated; it didn’t keep growing bigger, but it never completely went away. The stoop got worse. Miss Smith was called “Humpback” as well as “ Goose Neck.” She stayed in town because she had nowhere else to go.
We grew up. I took a vocational course and became a Certified Geriatric Nursing Assistant; I couldn’t bear to be in the nursing home that had subsidized the course, but that summer I cooked, cleaned, and doled out meds for one of the retired teachers who were Miss Smith’s peer group, and was soon on cheerful first-name-and-friendly-gossip terms with the whole bunch. “Miss Edith” was now on the town council. “Miss Edna” was now an election judge. “Miss Ethel” was raising her grandchildren. “Miss Daisy,” my patient, was making it a full-time job to convince me that anything fresh or low-fat was unfit for Yankees or for dogs to eat, and teach me to cook greasy indigestible oldfashioned food; she was older than the others, as well as less healthy, but she wasn’t missing a beat.

And Miss Smith? They all looked at each other, whenever her name was mentioned, and said, “Well, she’s still herself,” and some of them would admit that they’d spoken to her, in the supermarket or across the back fence, but when they visited each other, Miss Smith stayed home. Alone. First Miss Daisy, then the others, suffered further declines, were sent to nursing homes, eventually died. Miss Smith continued to stay home. Alone.
Then, for a few years, while I was spending most of the time doing better-paid work in Washington, Miss Smith’s grim old house began to look as if someone in it were alive. Did Miss Smith have relatives? None very close, none willing to stay with her; but she had a nurse, a radical Christian who was too old to have formed any grudge against Miss Smith, even as the parent of a fifth-grader, and thought even Miss Smith needed love too.
Love wasn’t enough. Miss Smith’s house went up for sale. The rumor went around that Miss Smith had died. The new owners of the house had a fancy sign carved, with their family name on it, and set it up on the front lawn, so children and young people would stop spitting on the pavement.
But more than ten years after the house was sold, I met the nurse. She was in her late seventies. It showed. I wondered whether she had to have a home nurse of her own by now. She straightened up as best she could and wheezed up at me, “No, I’m still taking care of Miss Smith. But in my house, not hers, because hers was too big and too old and had too many stairs. She’s diabetic and has a lot of other problems, but she still knows what’s going on, and nobody who knows what’s going on should ever have to be in those nursing homes.”

Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven...I thought I should have gone to see Miss Smith. I hadn’t been the first to call her by names that made fun of her illnesses, but I’d laughed at those remarks and repeated those names. I’d been a well-behaved child, on the surface, and by the eighth grade I’d even started to imagine the professional frustration and emotional barrenness and physical misery of Miss Smith’s life, but never had it crossed my mind that I could have done or said anything kind to her.
My brother had shaken off his feverish cold, with no lingering effects. You could say his career was meteoric. After his fifth-grade year he and I forced people to recognize that we were “youths,” not children, by fighting a fire. That winter we earned money by tutoring children. That summer I helped cook and baby-sit for the men who rebuilt the burnt house, but my brother demanded that they let him actually work on the crew, and they did. The next summer he died, in an accident, a few days before his thirteenth birthday. It would be fair to say that showing kindness to one of the very few people who had wanted to hurt my brother, or the even fewer people who had managed to do that, was somewhere around position number 999,999 on my Top Million List of things to do.
But at some point during the next few years, a buried memory resurfaced. I think most people have the wrong idea about buried memories. I’ve known people who had been beaten or raped, as children, and, like Maya Angelou, they remembered all about that. They might not be able to talk about it, but they never forgot it. I don’t claim any particular insight into the hypothesis that some part of a child remembers having been cleaned by adults as a kind of rape or molestation; if there is a part of my mind that harbors such feelings, I think I’m better off keeping it buried. What we actually do repress, try to forget and occasionally even succeed in forgetting for years at a time, are the memories of the really tacky, stupid, spiteful, infantile things we did.
My brother’s venture onto the ledge was not the only incident that had involved Miss Smith, a member of our family, and a book. All the teachers maintained a stock of books for students to read. Popular teachers stocked new paperback storybooks and biographies, and let kids keep them at the end of the year. Old grumpy teachers stocked old schoolbooks, and held on to them. Miss Smith’s books were so old I thought she must have used them herself; actually they’d been printed before she was born, but people kept books longer back then.

I actually liked those old books because they were so different. Miss Smith let me take them home, because I enjoyed them. That was no special favor; it was standard practice, but I knew Miss Smith expected me to bring the books back. Even if they weren't special souvenirs of her childhood, they were collectors' items by that time.

Trouble was, my parents didn’t want to be responsible for having rare antique books in the house with a crawling, drooling infant, so in order to enjoy these books at home I had to store them somewhere else. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d chosen the barn loft, but for some reason that must have made sense to me at the time, I chose a nice, dry little cache, on the bank of a nice little stream, overlooking a scenic waterfall.

The books were perfectly safe there, did not get rained on, did not show any signs of mildew...until the once-in-a-hundred-years Clinchport Flood, when even that high mountain stream rose high enough to wash my whole box of books and trinkets away. I was no longer in the fifth grade and should have returned Miss Smith's books long ago, but had never found time to remove them from the cache on the way to school in the morning.

I never told Miss Smith. She never mentioned those books to me, and I never mentioned them to her. I told myself there was no point telling her about the books: they were gone, probably out in the Mississippi River, by the time the flood receded enough that school could reopen.
We live in an imperfect world, where every act is imperfect and has imperfectly just and imperfectly logical consequences, and sometimes this makes it hard even with hindsight to determine what would have been the best thing to do. If I’d gone to see Miss Smith, would she have remembered me? Forgiven me, or asked my forgiveness? Had a heart attack, or gone into a decline, from shock or a long-held grudge? Miss Smith had had so much time to nurture her grievances...

I never went to see her. I read the obituary with a sense of “She’s out of her misery at last.” So why tell you about this?
1. Because the teacher you love to hate is probably not as bad as Miss Smith.
2. And your conflict with that teacher probably won’t be as dramatic as my brother’s conflict with Miss Smith.
3. But it’s possible that you might continue to dislike or despise that teacher, after leaving that class or school.
4. And if you do, then it’s likely that you’ll realize, one day, that you ought to have been feeling sorry for that teacher and trying to be kind to her or him, instead.
5. As their next of kin, you will have plenty of opportunities for reconciliation with your parents. As a former student, you may not have many opportunities for reconciliation with your former teacher.
6. So, please, in memory of the wretched old woman I’ve called Miss Smith, try to empathize with your teacher and make peace with her, now, while you can.