Monday, September 17, 2012

One Story of Many Teachers to Whom I Owe So Much

By my senior year, much to my unexpressed chagrin, English was the only advanced class I had left on my schedule and I was on the verge of not graduating at all.

I'd given up advanced mathematics after barely scraping a C in sophomore year Geometry and also in junior year Algebra II. In senior year, I took a general education mathematics class that met my math requirement for the year and left it at that. I had passed but hated Biology so much that I switched to Botany and just barely escaped flunking that class miserably, not being able to so much as identify a tree or single leaf to this day. I gave up on science altogether and thankfully I didn't need anymore credits in that subject. My junior year American history grade was so abysmal and threatened my graduation status so badly that the senior counselor got involved and I was reduced to taking it in night school in order to graduate on time. My mother was one determined soul and I would get my diploma or she would die trying and she enlisted every family member she could to give me a ride to the evening History class when she couldn't and she made sure I did the work.

Our AP English class was divided into three parts: literature, vocabulary and grammar. Because my mother was an English teacher, who not only insisted that I speak properly but also understand the technical differences between what was correct and what was not, I had a college level grasp of grammar before I left junior high and I was able to coast through the grammar portions with ease.

I did the vocabulary lessons because they gave us the great majority of easy homework points and I also enjoyed learning new words, although, due to my avid reading since the time I was in elementary school it wasn't until senior year that I truly encountered words I didn't already know and actually had to look up and study.

Despite my love of reading, I didn't enjoy the literature portions of class. I despised being commanded what to read and I felt that I was never expected to form my own opinions about anything. I was to give the "correct" answer and regurgitate whatever the teacher felt was most important about whatever we happened to be reading.

I felt, mistakenly, that I had moved beyond high school reading because I was reading and enjoying what I thought were much better books. Readers Digest Condensed novels as well as the actual magazine and anything else I could get my hands on in the school library. With the brashness of youth, I figured that because no one else my age was reading these august publications, I must be a step above my peers. These consisted of the majority of my reading education from 7-12th grade and, combined with what I managed to imbibe from high school, actually wasn't a bad education overall. I was also taking Spanish and had made it to Senior Year Spanish when many had not. We had a class of five students that final year, culled from the dozens who had started out with us in junior high and increasingly gave up through higher levels, as I had done in Math and Science.

I coasted through much of my last two years of high school and although my English teacher probably could have booted me off the advanced track as quickly as my other teachers had done, miraculously she didn't. Though we weren't close and I didn't speak to her much, I think she knew, in the way of teachers, that it would have irreparably wounded my pride and completely eliminated what meager sense of scholarship I still possessed to have been ousted from the class altogether.

So with what I am sure is the grudging gratitude that only teenagers can muster, I accepted my place in her senior year class. At the beginning of the year, she gave a pointed speech explaining that our class participation would be counted for more of our grade than in previous years.

I responded to this, not as you would expect by being grateful for being kept in the class, as well the chance to express myself. No, with typical teenage stubbornness, I responded with an uncharacteristic quietness that bordered on silence and would, ungrateful scholar, barely speak and only give the shortest of answers, if and only if she called upon me; I never volunteered a single comment.

I also eschewed most of the classwork and I marked her class period by writing in my class and personal journal, doing the vocabulary homework she assigned and reading my beloved Reader's Digest condensed books behind my reader or under my desk if we were supposed to be reading anything she assigned.

I justified this aggravating behavior by telling myself that at least I wasn't causing trouble in her class; as if by behaving better than I had any other year and barely doing anything she asked, I were granting a favor of the highest order.

Sue Sines, I'm sure, was a master chess player. When she, in her turn, deigned to notice me at all it was with a polite and biting sarcasm that perfectly mirrored my aggravating behavior. I look back on those days and wonder that she didn't strangle me in an age when teachers could actually discipline students without repercussion.

Every now and again, she would reiterate her speech that without class participation marks, no one could be expected to pass her class. No one, she repeated, looking pointedly at me with the rest of the class softly tittering and looking just as pointedly away from me.

I didn't show by one whit that I cared, but she knew I did. I don't know how but she knew that I did not want to fail her class. The thought of failing that one class consumed more of my waking hours than I cared to admit. I felt she was a witch, a mind-reader. I know now that she was merely an experienced teacher determined to do her best by every student who came her way.

There came a day, towards the end of the school-year, when we were to read aloud in class from our reading books, something we rarely did anymore as seniors in high school. I had my book because she had long ago shrewdly decided to deduct points for anyone not bringing their book to class and since I barely did anything, I couldn't afford to lose a single point. On that day, Ms. Sines gave me the briefest of looks as she turned to the blackboard that I interpreted correctly. I could read something else that day if I dared, but I would pay dearly. So I deliberately shoved the Reader's Digest Condensed I was hiding behind the reader into my bag and turned to that day's literature selection.

The first part was nearly all in Spanish. I was the only one in class who had finished Spanish after sophomore year.

She stayed at the blackboard and sat at her desk longer than usual, giving me time to think. Finally, she asked who would like to read first.

I raised my hand with all the others.

She ignored all the other raised hands and called on me to read.

And I did.

She complimented me on my pronunciation of the Spanish phrases.

That was the extent of my class participation that year. I stopped reading other books during her class time.

She gave me a D which allowed me to graduate.

I owe her so much and I never once said thank you. It brings me to tears to think of her and that crazy, stubbornly silent rebellion all these years later.

I would hate to think of anyone saying that she didn't do her job because I didn't do mine. I earned the grade she gave me. Ms. Sines and so many other teachers taught me so much more than a letter on a transcript will ever show.

I hope the teachers in Chicago continue to fight the good fight.

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