Hard lessons

You learn from your great ones, but sometimes you learn something from the horrible ones too. Table Talkers recall teachers from hell.

Published September 1, 2006 10:14AM (EDT)

Private Life

My worst teacher

Maple Leaf - 03:00 pm Pacific Time -- Aug 29, 2006 -- #8 of 105

Grade nine math class for me was taught by a horrible teacher who was reputed to have been stuck teaching math because nobody would take his elective courses but he had the magical tenure. He quite disgustedly handed back our mid-year exams and admonished the boys in a sneering tone: "I don't know what's wrong with all of you ... a girl got the highest mark on the exam!" (At this point he threw my test on my desk in front of me.) My response naturally was to snarl a "f--k you" very quietly under my breath and vow to kick the ass of all of my classmates, particularly the males, for the remainder of the year. Which I did, with my parents' blessing. And people wonder why so many girls have developed issues with math and science?

Aspidistra - 07:37 pm Pacific Time -- Aug 29, 2006 -- #24 of 105

Sister Elizabeth, 2nd grade. I had just transferred from another school, not a Catholic one, where I'd started the year in first grade but finished the year in third. I wanted to go to third grade in Catholic school, too, because third graders got to study French and Thai. (This was in Bangkok, hence the Thai.) Sister Elizabeth, an elderly French nun, didn't trust the other school and insisted that my mother put me in her class for a few weeks so she could see whether I was really all that. If she thought I could do the work, she would let me move to third grade right away.

After a few weeks of school, my mother went to talk to Sister about my progress. Sister's opinion was that I was a very smart girl, and she said there was no question that I could handle the academic work. But second grade girls were supposed to learn embroidery, and little Aspidistra hadn't been doing very well with that. Sister thought it would be better for me to stay in the second grade because book learning is not as important as the discipline of mastering an important womanly skill like embroidery.

Sister was right, of course. Little Aspidistra didn't like embroidery because all the girls had to come sit on a bench by Sister's desk to work on embroidery in a stifling classroom in the tropical afternoons while the boys got to goof off outside in the courtyard. Little Aspidistra also didn't like Sister Elizabeth yelling at her and calling her stupid for not knowing how to embroider instead of actually trying to teach her how to do it. Little Aspidistra's mother, however, was completely cowed by the formidable Sister Elizabeth and agreed to leave me in the second grade.

For the rest of the year, because she knew I already knew the answers, Sister never called on me in class. I never got to read aloud or go to the board to work a math problem. I just had to sit there and listen. And she always seated me next to the slowest, most ill-behaved boy in the class, who would forever be pestering me in frightened whispers to give him answers to the questions Sister barked at him all day long. I longed to be allowed to do the things they gave the boys to do as punishments, like clean the erasers or wash the blackboards. But I just had to sit there until it was time for the damned embroidery lessons, when suddenly the teacher who'd ignored me all day was riding my ass about my poor needle skills.

At the end of the year, my mother was all proud that I brought home a creditable embroidery project. She never realized that I stopped embroidering at all about midway through the year. Sister Elizabeth finished my project for me after throwing up her hands in disgust at my ineptitude.

Some years later, long after we'd left Thailand behind, I taught myself to embroider and found that I quite enjoyed it. My mother credited Sister Elizabeth for this, thinking she'd instilled some great love of embroidery in me that finally came to fruition. In a way she was right that Sister Elizabeth had something to do with it. I took back something she'd taken away from me by mastering it on my own time and in my own way, with no one sitting by to call me stupid while I fumbled with my beginner's fingers.

David Giltinan - 09:19 pm Pacific Time -- Aug 30, 2006 -- #94 of 106

This thread is about teachers, so let me set the stage for the first meeting between me and my nemesis, the school's resident P.E. teacher. As luck would have it, Joe Lennon was captain of the County Down (amateur) Gaelic football team, whom he had led to glorious victory in the All-Ireland final before an adoring nation just the week before school started. My first crime? Not having any idea who the bastard was. My first tactical error? Not taking pains to conceal my ignorance. My second crime and tactical error? Not making any effort to pretend I cared, or to be otherwise impressed, when informed of His Magnificence's claim to glory (I've always had a bit of a problem with authority figures, truth be told, since I believe that true authority is earned and not conferred).

A vignette. Week 2 in my first year at the school. We've assembled for our mandatory weekly Gaelic football practice. Joe scans the crowd of pupils, most of whom are drooling, starry-eyed with hero worship, just hoping they will be called (many of them, I learn later, have engaged in practice sessions the entire previous Sunday afternoon, having learned the agenda from kids in higher grades, so they can shine if called. I'm doomed). Sure enough, he calls me out. I spazz out. General hilarity. I spazz out some more. At some point we're obviously stuck in a loop. He's really screaming at me now, taking my inability to master the necessary hand-eye coordination personally. I'm puzzled, and annoyed, but frankly don't really care, and am just waiting for him to move on and pick someone else. No such luck. Finally it dawns on me that he must be waiting for me to cry.

But, as luck would have it, I've already gone through two horrendous bullying incidents that day, including one swirly, so whatever is left in my emotional repertoire just doesn't include any more sobbing. Furthermore, at some very deep level of my being there's still an intact layer of common sense which recognizes what he is doing as deeply disturbed behavior, and I am not going to give him the satisfaction. In the retelling of this incident, it is enormously tempting to reach into memory and alter the past to allow me to vanquish him with a suitable wisecrack, but it just didn't happen that way. Eventually, I got to stand down, and he immediately picks the most coordinated jock in the bunch with the words "Now that we've seen how not to do it, let's have someone up here who has an athletic brain (the "athletic brain" was one of his favorite expressions -- barf!) show us how it goes.

That episode pretty much set the tone for the entire semester that followed. There wasn't a class, or practice session, where he didn't single me out in some way for particular humiliation. Fortunately, my apparently bottomless supply of stubbornness kept me from ever crying while it was happening -- I also had the intuition that coming back at him with obvious indifference really enraged him, which seemed a better outcome to me than allowing him to feel that he had won.

Although I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, I have to acknowledge that that year was, for me, a formative experience. Many of what I think of as my defining character traits -- in particular, a certain persistence about not acknowledging defeat, a willingness to speak out against the "wisdom" of the majority, and an empathy for the underdog -- can surely be traced back to what I learned that year.

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