I had a less than stellar childhood. When I look back, I had a lot of unhappiness. School should have been a bright spot, and in some ways it was, but in other ways it was horrible. Some people — teachers — made all the difference.
The earliest teacher of which I have a memory is Mrs. North in fourth grade. In music class, she taught us show tunes: Oliver!, The Sound of Music, and (although it was probably inappropriate for a public school), Godspell. Along with my father, she made show tunes cool, and she is one of the reasons that I have at least one song from probably a hundred different shows*, not including revivals and movie soundtracks, on my iTunes. I have complete soundtracks from about thirty shows — I purged a bunch about a year ago; before then I had about sixty full soundtracks. (As I said, not including revivals — I have three different versions of Sondheim’s Follies.)
If memory serves, Mrs. North was also the teacher that told my Mom I was failing English because I wasn’t doing the book reports. Given that I read constantly**, and well above grade level, but simply was too lazy to write about what I read, Mom was understandably outraged. (At me, not Mrs. North. In all my years of school, my parents never interceded with a teacher on my behalf, partially because they didn’t need to, but also because they believed that if I was getting a bad grade it was my responsibility to work harder.)
I had Mr. Lindsey in the seventh grade. Mr Lindsey made me feel like I was worth something: that it didn’t matter if I was popular or pretty as long as I was smart. He also had Jeopardy! type games every week covering what we were supposed to have learned. Those games marked the first — and only — time I have been picked first, that people argued over who got to have me on their team. The team I was on always won.
Mr. Lindsey was also the first person to call me Pat rather than Patty, which nickname I adopted with alacrity. (I had never really liked Patty, let alone Patsy.) Pat made me feel stronger, more capable. He also allowed students to challenge what he said, up to a point, provided that they could back up what they said with a reputable source. Once, he was talking about Mt. Everest being the tallest mountain on earth. I raised my hand. “It’s not,” I said. “Mauna Kea in Hawaii is.” We went back and forth about it a bit, and when I brought in the book on earth sciences I was reading that stated that Mauna Kea, when measured from its base on the ocean floor, was taller than Everest, he admitted I was right. Mr. Lindsey then said “Mt. Everest is the highest point on earth,” and looked at me challengingly. “I never said it wasn’t,” I replied, looking angelic. It’s a bit of a miracle he didn’t thwap me.
Mrs. French was my sometimes cranky English teacher. She taught me a love of poetry, of memorizing poetry, of the sound of the rhythm of the words. She’s the reason that — until my memory got hazy — I could recite all of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and pretty much all of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” I learned to seek out poetry on my own, from the frantic rush of e.e. cummings “next to god of course america” to the enveloping hidden sadness of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Then high school. High school was, like it was for many of us, miserable. But there were teachers who helped there, too.
Mr. Oescher was my ideal of a math teacher: he believed in teaching not only the formulas, and how they worked, but also why they worked. A lot of students hated being in his class: he required you to think, not just memorize. I loved having him; I only wish I could have had him for both halves of Trigonometry, even though I got a better grade in Mr. Jacob’s class.
Ms. Kostbar taught Chemistry. I loved Chemistry, and I loved the way she taught it. I was disappointed when the powers that be decreed that they were getting rid of Chem 2 and that we needed to do the class as independent study. (We had to arrange lab time, and do the other work on our own. What can I say? Florida schools at that time were some of the worst in the country.) She also believed in my ability: as a result of some abysmal grades freshman year, I didn’t make Honor Society until my Senior year. Mrs. Kostbar (who was the faculty advisor), was not happy with me: “You should have made it last year. You are smart enough.”
And then there is Mrs. Cogar. I have written about her before; she changed my life, far more than any teacher I have ever had, either before or since. From her I learned to be analytical, but that it was also possible to overanalyze. She introduced me to Frost, and Steinbeck, and O’Neill. If I could only thank one teacher, it would be her. (She would be slightly appalled at my writing these days, though: I use the passive tense far too much.)
There were teachers in college (Alice Robinson, Nina Tumarkin**) and law school (Buzz Thompson, Barbara Babcock) whose classes I enjoyed, were challenged by, and where I learned to think critically.
But my teachers in middle and high school helped change me and shape me into who I am now. They told me it was okay to always ask “Why?” and that facts mattered, and that intelligence was not something to be ashamed of. They taught me to look for the answers other than the obvious, and that challenging authority was good, sometimes.
I thank them with all my heart.
*Full disclosure: a lot of those are on the six-disc set for Broadway: The American Musical, which I got for Christmas about seven or eight years ago. I was delighted; my family not so much.
**Some kids had parents who took away television privileges as punishment. Mine shut away my books (usually to get me to clean my room).
***Even though I got As and A-s in a lot of classes, the grade I am most proud of in all my years at Wellesley is the B+ in Nina Tumarkin’s 20th Century History Class. The final consisted of two questions, one of which was along the lines of “What changes would you make to the Treaty of Versailles so as to alleviate the conditions which led to the rise of Nazi Germany?” Or, more simply, “Rewrite the Treaty of Versailles so it works.”)