Reform Rochester Now!

Making city and citizens self-sustaining

All my heroes are teachers

It might seem strange to write about what happens at school on a Sunday, but yesterday I read about the woman who posted her poem on FaceBook about being bullied as a child, and I had a few thoughts I wanted to get off my chest about bullying, and the adults we pass in the halls of this nation’s public institutions of learning daily without making eye contact.

Hard to believe it was just a year ago that I attended a conference on cyber-bullying at my daughter’s school. A girl there with her mom had been the victim of repeated bullying, but she had been the one suspended for her loud belligerent reaction to being insulted by multiple classmates just out of the teacher’s earshot. I spoke up on her behalf, saying that it didn’t make sense to beat the hell out of the smoke alarm for making a loud noise, then let the fire burn down the building. The representative faculty member maintained her position that everyone was in the wrong and no one was innocent, whatever THAT meant. The bullying that appeared to be the problem wasn’t online, it was in person in the classroom, and no one was better equipped to handle it. I left that evening hoping the handouts I went home with would be helpful and wondering vaguely if my seven-year-old daughter, who had been bullied the year before by classmates, was doomed by her DNA.

Teachers today all want to declare themselves Switzerland when there’s a classroom conflict, and in the end they lose face and graduation rates continue to plummet. Worst of all, the teachers aren’t learning anything.

I remember the teachers when I was in school. I was bullied, too, but it was different at each school I went to, depending on the family member I happened to be living with. When I was left alone to fend for myself, I did fine. But for the last two years of high school, I ended up in the same small town where I spent my earliest childhood, with the treacherous little girls who stole my toys when we were all preschool-age and they came over to play. Years before, my father had tried unsuccessfully to participate on the school board, and he found the members so disagreeable that when I became school-age he enrolled me in public school in the city where he worked. The kids all thought I was stuck on myself because I went to school in town, so my return to the local community later on brought a certain kind of stigma understood only by me and them. Let’s just say I knew it wouldn’t be an easy transition.

My first week I was confronted by a group of girls at my locker who told me they were going to beat me up. Nonetheless, I really liked school and I wanted a reason to look forward to going to school, so I joined chorus class and I tried to get the music teacher to have a special talent program where certain students could get up and sing solos. This was years before Star Search and American Idol. I was excited about the stupid floor-length black polyester dresses my mother bought for me at Goodwill that I thought I might wear onstage singing “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You.” Months went by and nothing happened. Finally, the music teacher just apologized to everyone in class because she never put the program together. We had all been practicing these songs all year but there was no performance. No one cared. I cared, but I didn’t tell anyone. My mother never asked about the performance and I don’t remember what happened to the black dresses.

Most of the teachers seemed decent, except the gym teacher seemed to have it in for me. She liked to put me with the mean girls when we played badminton because she liked to watch me fail miserably to hit the shuttlecock while the girl serving waled on me and everyone laughed. The English teacher liked me and wouldn’t stand for people putting me down in her class, in the subtle ways they had. There was a Geometry teacher who really didn’t look like she belonged in a rural town at all, and I could tell how unhappy she was by the look on her face each day. The kids seemed to rip her to shreds, and she left after only one year.

I wasn’t good at badminton and I wasn’t good at throwing pots on the potter’s wheel, so I asked the art teacher if I could build sculptures instead. I made strange animals, and when we tried to fire them in the kiln, they blew up. I got a D in his class. My math teacher had no respect for me either. I struggled and struggled in both his Advanced Math class and in his Computer class. He looked like a white Bill Cosby, but he gave me a dirty look when I told him so.

You know that thing the kids do when it’s open campus and you’re walking down the road and a group of them pass you in their car doing about 40 mph, close enough to touch you but not actually hit you, the way the hair prickles all over your body and you almost wet your pants. Or when they drive up to you while you’re crossing the parking lot in front of them and then they lam on their horn and you jump and they laugh.

Or when you ride the school bus and a bunch of the kids get someone’s little sister who’s in kindergarten to come up and tell you you’re a loser and they all laugh. Then they go in ahead of you and lock the door behind them so you’re locked out of school, and you have to bang on the patio door of the teacher’s lounge until someone lets you in.

What I remember most from that period was the teachers. They seemed like good people generally, caught up in their own issues. For my own reasons, I slept through many of the classes. The World History teacher was fun to listen to, and I would dream about the stories he told. Consequently I aced all the tests and ended up with a Straight-A certificate in his class at the end of the year. The Physical Science teacher used to make fun of the way the students would all cheat off each other’s papers and write down the wrong answers. One day one of the kids pointed at me and said, “She sleeps through class every day,” and he said, “She gets better grades than you do, so mind your own beeswax.” The Spanish teacher taunted one of the slutty girls in our class by making her conjugate the verb “to come” in class. One day after everyone else left the room, she confronted me about why I always slept through class. I was honest and forthright with her, but she ended her questioning abruptly when she realized I wasn’t doing drugs because she didn’t know where to take it after that.

The kids weren’t much to talk about. It was a rural Wisconsin town, no blacks or latinos. We had an Asian girl who was married for some mysterious reason to one of the Kornelsons. All the kids were Germans and Swedes, but if your grandparents hadn’t lived in the town, you were no one. No one tried to get good grades. The local industry was pottery, and the “rich” kids came from families who had boats on Lake Ripley, their parents were thousandaires, not millionaires. The major moral dilemma at school was whether or not to have a soda machine and you could get in big trouble for walking down the hall holding hands with someone of the opposite sex, but all the popular kids went out drinking on weekends and screwing boys from the football teams in neighboring towns. One girl in particular came back to school with an odd grin on her face and a splayed walk. Weeks later a blue tumor appeared on her lip and everyone started calling her Herpes.

There was another teacher, Mr. Lakey, who taught Mass Media class. After the whole thing with chorus class went South he decided to start a school TV station. I really got a kick out of it and was promoted to anchor. One or two of the students began to see another side of me as I started to develop confidence, but then things began to get really rough at home and I had to move back in with my mom in another state, so that ended that. I had one quarter left of high school and then I had to decide where to graduate. I wanted my dad to be at the ceremony so as much as the kids hated me in that rural school, I went back. Just for my dad.

My English teacher helped me put on my cap and gown. I was amazed to hear that “chunky” had been in my graduating class. He had been my best friend when we were little kids, but I never even knew who he was in high school. Another girl, who had been my best friend Bethy, had given me her school picture and then asked for it back. Two other girls, Kelly and Tonny as I knew them when we were little kids, had run in their own circles the time I was there. Tonny was one of the girls who tormented me, but not in the extreme way some of the kids did. A different Kelly who had always been a terror when we were little sidled up to my mom and me in the mall talking to a friend about having a child out of wedlock. I guess she thought maybe I left school because I had gotten pregnant and she wanted to find out the dirt. She was the one who had gotten her girlfriends to corner me against my locker when I first started school.

The graduation ceremony was great. When it was over, I wanted to leave. The school superintendent came up and posed with me for a photo. Afterward I found out that I was the reason drivers ed became a requirement to graduate, because I didn’t have my license and wouldn’t get it until age 27. The art teacher apologized to me as well for giving me a D. He had been going through a divorce and took it out on me, but my art teacher in the other state called him up and yelled at him and made him change it to an A.

Life was hell for me as a kid, it was a hell I thought would never end. I was a decent student and they knew I needed to graduate so I could hurry up and leave home. I know there were technicalities and they could have held me back for any number of reasons, but God bless my teachers for cutting the red tape.

Years later, I was contacted for my five-year high school reunion and then my 10-year. My name had changed twice by that point and I had moved far away. I wrote them back and told them not to contact me again and to stop looking for me. I told them to forget about me because there was no reason I would ever spend time in a room full of people who hated me so much, and that there was nothing I wanted to remember or celebrate from that period of my life.

But I do remember the teachers who gave me my sense of identity. Even when they weren’t doing their best, I always thought they might surprise me or, given the right circumstances, help me surprise myself! My daughter wants to be a teacher, and the biggest surprise of all is that all my heroes are teachers. They give us a reason to keep reaching, they help us, as a culture, survive. God bless the teachers.

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