Sunday, June 26, 2011

Personal Heroes

I thought I might go on a bit about some particularly exceptional people in my life. I had thought about doing so a couple of months back, when the furor about the evils of unions for public employees was at fever pitch, but I figured it was more prudent to let things cool down a bit, so that I might write with a clearer head. I have very strong feelings about teachers, and I haven't been as angry in years as I was to hear some of the nasty rhetoric about them—particularly by a lot of pinheads on Facebook—during the early May "debates" about collective bargaining in Wisconsin. If you frequent this blog, you probably know that, when I'm not writing infernal tales of woe and dread, I work in the educational publishing business, and thus I have close ties to the education field. I feel very strongly about academics, and participating in this business is my way of contributing to education without actually working in the classroom—which, I might as well admit, would eventually lead either to my murder or my incarceration for murder. Hence much of my respect for those who are there on the front lines, giving everything they've got and then some to keep the youth of this nation from slipping ever deeper into the vast cesspool of stupidity, which has spread like a giant oil slick since the nobly intentioned but ultimately misguided No Child Left Behind Act became the law of the land just after the turn of the century.

Now, tell me. Could you read the above paragraph? Did you find any spelling, grammar, or usage errors? Did you discern any particular personal bias? Could you identify some of the liberties I've taken with formal English to write colloquially? Do you know what "colloquial" means? Does "hyperbole" mean anything to you? If you answered "yes" to any of these, thank a teacher.

I was fortunate to have been educated in a time when the economy in my community was booming, and educational standards were high due less to mandate than our community realizing they needed to be, and because education—and educators—were valued as the long-term assets they rightfully are. Now, you and I have both had good teachers and bad teachers, and sometimes, despite the best efforts of the good ones, neither of us do much learning. I usually attribute that to laziness on my part—probably yours too—but against all odds, the better part of the important lessons they taught me managed to stick. For example: At my job, I occasionally have to use algebra and/or geometry to accurately create a page for one of our publications. To be honest, a honey badger can solve simple math problems better than I can (I am very much in my right brain); however, while I can't recall particular formulas without serious research (and then with serious lapses of comprehension), I have somehow managed to recollect exercises in logical thinking that, in the end, have allowed me to re-invent algebra from the ground up and ultimately get the page done right.

Credit goes to Ms. Frances Harris, eighth grade, Martinsville Junior High School, and Mr. Glenn Sellers, 11th grade, Martinsville High School. No doubt, they'd cringe at my methods, but by god, they were the ones who presented me with challenges that, at the time, I knew were beyond my means, and essentially dared me to overcome them.

Smart, them ones.

Now, I'm not writing this as much to make a political argument as to highlight the dire need our society has for excellent educators. I'm going to tell you right now, you could not pay me enough to work in a public school—especially in an impoverished or otherwise challenging community—because, above all things, I value my sanity. Yet I personally know many, many individuals who lay aside their personal fears and biases; they draw on every ounce of creativity they have; they sacrifice the wealth they might otherwise gain in their field to pass on their knowledge to our young because they feel it's the right thing to do. Because they care.

Now, I will tell you, I've been there, at least in some limited capacity. I've taught adults, I've taught youngsters; I've extended myself far beyond my comfort zone to give a little bit back to a community that by and large did me right. Back in the 80s, one of my students in the Patrick Henry Community College program for continuing education (I taught art) was my 12th-grade English teacher, the late Mrs. Lula Johnson. Never was there a more gratifying moment: I got to challenge her the way she had challenged me. She knew I was going to do this and was absolutely sporting about it (the fact of which increased my admiration for her all the more). Of course, she was teaching me the basics of communication; I was teaching her the basics of a hopefully enriching elective. Some difference; yet it put me in the position of seeing things from the other end of the spectrum. I don't know that I've ever been more enlightened.

In eighth grade, I had a most wonderful art teacher. Although I was artistically inclined, I had always considered myself a far better artist than I really was; still, I did have at least some grasp of the basics, and Mr. Colie Johnson recognized my inherent strengths. Yet and still (his favorite expression), he always took it upon himself to challenge me to strive harder than I thought was necessary. No matter how much effort I put into a piece of art, no matter how deeply I drew on my creativity, he'd look at what I did, smile encouragingly, tell me I was doing beautifully, and then wonder if there was anything else I could think of that might make it work better. I was sometimes offended and occasionally quite indignant. What do you mean it's not perfect as it is? But his manner was irresistible; there was no choice in the matter. I had to make it better. Somewhere along the line, that became my philosophy in life: it had to be better.

In tenth grade, my biology teacher was Mr. Bill Vickers (who went on to become the principal of Martinsville High School). Now, I don't remember shit about Gregor Mendel or the phylogenetic tree of life or the finer points of natural selection. But I clearly remember the labs where we evaluated the merits of evolution vs. scientific creationism (because in those days you could do this without offending a bunch of overly sensitive religious pricks [note the personal bias]); debated whether marijuana should be legalized (and to what degree, be it medicinal or in general); and analyzed current social issues (such as whether we favored busing students to distant schools to fulfill integration quotas). Of course, we did actually study the more traditional aspects of biology, and to reinforce our learning, we often played games, such as Chalk Talks, which made the subject fun and, above all, memorable. Part of the class's appeal was that Mr. V. had nicknames for everyone in class. I was Polo (you know, as in Marco). We had Sir Slab, Ms. Red Nose, Jaypee, Bonneville, and all kinds of other colorful names. Mr. V. taught me more about critical thinking than any other teacher, either before or since. In fact, I credit Mr. V. with being perhaps the most influential individual in my life, apart from my immediate family.

Did you have a teacher like that?

We need teachers like that. We need individuals who can inspire our young people to strive beyond the short-term strictures of achievement tests. We need to give them every means at our disposal to make sure that this country regains its respected stature in the field of education. To me, it's an almost personal affront that our public education system has slipped from being the pinnacle of the civilized world to a transparent shadow of itself, and that here, even in this country, short-sighted politicians, media blowhards, and, yes, the ignorant masses have somehow taken it upon themselves to demonize some of the most intelligent, influential, and crucial members of our society.

Never was this more evident than when a Facebook "friend" with right-leaning tendencies went on, day after day, about those overpaid, elitist, lazy-ass teachers whose only function is to indoctrinate youngsters into the ranks of stupid liberals, and who spend every summer lounging on the beach on our tax dollars, and then have the gall to do all they can to retain their professional, personal, and political influence as a group. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course; but if your every post is riddled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and you can't piece together two coherent sentences—I'm sorry—your semi-literate rantings on this subject are not exactly credible.

Then there's the fine lady I know whose emotionally challenged son is more than a handful for his poor teachers, to the detriment of the rest of the class. Needless to say, in her eyes, all her son's problems are his teachers' fault because, for one thing, he's smarter than they are (in fact, he's smarter than most adults!) and they just don't recognize it, and for another, he doesn't really have any discipline problems, he's just bored. Well, you know, it may be that he's a smart kid at heart, but it's so much easier just to blame teachers for his problems than to actively get involved, work with the teachers instead of fighting them at every juncture, and, well, you know, maybe being a decent, forward-thinking parent.

So yeah, these things drove me to write up a little something in the defense of one of the most under-appreciated groups of individuals in the land. At my job, I work with a passel of former teachers. Over the years, I've kept in touch with a number of my former teachers. Sadly, almost all of them lament where the education system has gone over the past decade or so. The biggest complaint I hear is that all the creativity has gone out of the classroom in favor of teaching to the tests, which in itself has resulted in a marked decrease in kids' critical thinking skills and increased school administrators' motivations to manipulate the system just to keep their federal dollars coming in. What we, as citizens, need to recognize is that we are jeopardizing our own future by implementing short-sighted policies that discourage the best teachers—who appear to be leaving even decent school systems in droves.

Yes, by all means, let's look at areas where there's waste and do something about it. But we can't keep financially gutting our education system and not expect the direst consequences down the road. Our teachers need to be given every possible tool to succeed. Lord knows their jobs are already more than hard enough. No, not all teachers are saints or paragons, but in my experience, most of them really have a stake in your kids' futures. If you're a parent, get involved. Get to know your kids' teachers. Give them a hand. For God's sake, don't fight them. Or you, not they, are the problem.


Elizabeth Massie said...

Oh. Wow. Hundreds of nails here. All hit on the head and beautifully so. (Note my decision to use several incomplete sentences for effect.) :) Mark, this is a gem of an essay. I couldn't agree with you more. I hope (wish?) some of those teachers to whom you refer are still around so they can read this. As a former teacher in the public school system (19 years) and as one who still goes into schools to present creative writing workshops, I can attest to the fortitude it takes to face class after class of students, not just for the purposes of keeping order but for the purposes of teaching content and, most importantly, attempting to instill a joy of learning and the skills to critically question, investigate, and discover. Honey badger might be better at math, but he has nothing on you when it comes to expressing solid, thought-provoking topics to a readership.

Kurt Wimberger said...

Spot on, Mark! Great post. Thanks.