I am sure you’re looking at this title and assuming that, in this context, I am about to profile the Top 10 worst students I ever had to survive. Fortunately, I don’t think I could make a list of 10 of those—maybe five, and three of those would be massively spoiled brats, not your stereotypical underclass refuseniks. As far as the teachers I survived are concerned? Well—a Top 10 is insufficient.
Let me take you, though, through my edumacational stages, but also demonstrate that one can learn almost as much from the worst of my profession as from the best.
My seven elementary teachers broke down this way:
1) Two were mean as snakes. And physically imposing to a little kid. And seemed, through those two characteristics, to be zealously guarding the truth: to wit, that the only thing they hated worse than teaching was children.
2) One looked like she was a sister of the first two—and she was indeed steely—but had a twinkle in her eye that betrayed her affection for us and her love for the gig. She only had to lift me by my earlobe once to attain my acquiescence to her program, and afterwards she simply asked me if I knew why she’d put the clamp on. I knew the answer.
3) One was incapable of controlling a classroom of children but also constitutionally kind. If you said you were sick, she always sent you to the nurse and didn’t check with your parents. And she quite inaccurately referred to each of us as “Sweetie.”
4) One appeared to have been teleported in from the 19th century. She was strange, but…good. Especially when it came to teaching that so-currently-relevant skill, cursive.
4) One was a corrupt, lying, oily bastard who Baptist-ministered on the side, sported a glass eye, and claimed to have invented the washer and dryer (?!)–if only the patents had not been stolen from him.
5) One dared to show us affection outwardly, and used to stick out her tongue and roll her eyes with pleasure at our performance. And she could teach an ostrich to fly. In fact, she was the first great one I knew: Opal Jarman was the name, and doesn’t it bode well?
I suspect that ratio is about right for folks of my vintage; what I have observed from a limited perspective since I’ve been in the profession is that, maybe, millennials have gotten a better shake. But let me elaborate on a few of the more intriguing moments in my enlightenment, as facilitated by the most suspect of my elementary teachers.
One of those first two? My kindergarten teacher. “Welcome to school, you little INGRATES!” was her rallying cry. Let me support her, in a way, and my point:
It is nap time in my kindergarten class. As usual, I am unaccountably unable to fall asleep on my thin rubber mat, which lies atop a cold, concrete floor. My restless eyes wander around the room until they alight on a view—OK, please bear in mind I was six!—of a girl’s exposed panties. This is a view the import of which I had not the training to decode; it seems, shall we say, strange to me, and thus…my eyes linger. Little do I know that other eyes—evil eagle eyes, darting around behind bifocals—are spying my eyes.
A crow-caw splits the silence: “Phillip Overeem, get up to the teacher’s desk right NOW!” (Editor’s note: So why is it now that elementary teachers are supposed to refer to themselves in third person? It only seems to heighten their menace!).
My heart sproings back into my chest, and I advance sheepishly to her desk. ‘What is the better death,” I think, ‘To run and surely get caught, or to come within her reach and have the flesh stripped from my bones by not just her claws but her tone of voice?’
As I come within a yard of her desk-fortress, she reaches from behind it, grabs my shirt, and pulls me behind it to her side. With the other hand, she yanks open her bottom left-hand drawer (the time-honored drawer within which we hide our flasks), and screeches directly into my ear the following query, and command:
“Do you want to see girls’ panties, Phillip? DO YOU? Well—look at these!”
At that, she lifts her hand to my neck and thrusts my face into the silky pile of kiddie-skivvies she has—can it be?—hoarded in the drawer. I am frightened, not a little pained, then vaguely conscious of something undefinably but most definitely wrong. She yanks my face back out of the drawer and thrusts me with shot-putter strength back to my mat.
And I do not speak of it again…until now.
Seriously, though, about 10-15 years ago, I finally recalled this incident to my mom, herself a retired elementary teacher. I had figured that, at that late date, my confession would not end up dispatching Carthage law enforcement to Columbian Elementary to excavate the grounds for bodies.
After I finished the story, my mom laughed aloud. “No kindergarten teacher worth her salt would be caught dead without panties squirreled away somewhere. Kids that age pee their pants far too often!”
I exhaled loudly in relief. So my kindergarten teacher was not a very idiosyncratic sex offender after all!
Lesson: After time passes, many of your worst teachers magically become pretty damned good. Others remain monsters, but round into monsters who are at least prepared.
Moving on, let’s examine the question of how bad a teacher a constitutionally nice person can be. As far as my best friend Rob and I were concerned, her inability to construct a strategy to deal with us after we had raced to be the first one done with an assignment (and on which we still regularly excelled) resulted in us having the dreaded “free time,” and on a daily basis. “Oh shit!” is indeed the correct reaction.
I patiently wait for Rob to enter the classroom, as he has promised to bring us ‘materials’ for our new ‘project.’ He slides into the desk next to me, from which our kindly teacher has not wisely moved him, and secrets me his bounty: one of his brother Ted’s Playboy magazines. Belushi-like, I raise an eyebrow, at which signal Rob simply proffers, “Let’s create our own!”
We both loved to draw and crack wise, but we’d grown bored of sketching monsters and choppers and insulting our fellow rugrats. So—division of labor: Rob, being by far the most talented artist of the two of us, would handle the pulchritudinal portraits; I would construct an interview with a celebrity (us) and write the jokes that would immediately follow Rob’s centerfold (hey: there were Shel Silverstein books on the classroom shelves, people!). We would carefully, whenever we arrived at a half-hour with nothing to do, get out our portfolio and create the magazine, a chunk or two at a time, occasionally peering over the tops of our fellow students’ toiling heads to keep tabs on the teacher, but also wonder what exactly she would do if she caught us.
(Editor’s note: Yes, this really happened).
After a solid month of discipline and focus, we walk to the teacher’s desk and ask to borrow her stapler. Without asking us why we need it, she hands it to us with a cooing, “Here you are, sweeties.” Back at our desks, we proudly plant three staples along the fold of our artisanal soft-core example of realistic (and collaborative!) art, look at each other with amazement, hand it back and forth to each other for final approval, and begin to discuss—a bit too loudly, in retrospect—our rules for sharing our magazine with classmates. We find we are motivated by profit, just enough to purchase cinnamon toothpicks on a regular basis.
Suddenly, a shadow falls across the pages as I inspect them; upon a blink, Miss Smith is holding our piece of literature and thumbing through it. Without a word, she walks back to her desk, and dismisses the class to recess. Rob and I look at each other, get up, and shuffle with conspicuous expectation past her domain. She says nothing; she does not even look at us; however, she is not glowering into space, either.
We never see our precious Playboy facsimile again. Its existence is never mentioned again but between the two of us, and even then, out of sadness, even our acknowledgement of the document’s reality gradually dissipates. But today, I still wonder what became of it. Did it land in a dumpster? Or was it kept—is it kept still, by someone—as a bizarre memento of a difficult career?
Lesson: Sometimes bad teachers (and even great ones, like my old mentor Bob Bilyeu) either consciously or unconsciously employ a strategy known as benign negligence, which allows their students to access their own creativity, ideas, and motivations in order to create products which, while unconventional, would easily meet the requirements of any set of state or federal standards–and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Thus, without actually teaching, they lead their troops to excellence. No guru, no method. Right?
To wrap up this survey of teaching malfeasance and its paradoxical benefits, let us move on to the final pedagog of my elementary slog (the aforementioned inventor manqué) and away from puerile and lascivious deeds. In this case, I must shift tone.
I report to my sixth grade classroom having read my social studies assignment: one page of discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. This single page is not an excerpt from our social studies Civil Rights text section; it IS the social studies text Civil Rights section. For one of the few times this school year, I am very interested in the subject matter: for one, our elementary serves not a single student of color, so I am confused about that fact after doing my reading, and for another, I love, and feel certain that I will always love, a rebel. This lesson, I figure, unlike the one our teacher has recently taught on human sexuality (the full lecture text: “Keep your pants zipped up!”), should be enlightening.
The teacher begins by passing around a postcard. On the postcard is this photo, which sears a brand into my brain:
I look at it, shaking my head in classic cognitive dissonance. The teacher begins (and ends):
“Students, your reading homework is an example of how textbooks lie. Martin Luther King, as you can see from the postcard, was a Communist and an enemy of the American people. You will do well to remember that. He is an enemy of the American people. Now, if you will return the postcard to me and get out your math, we will check that assignment.”
Wait! Not that other things he has done haven’t also smelled to high heaven (keeping me in from recess because I had said, “I screwed this problem up”; belittling fellows students who could not sing to his standards; threatening to call our parents but being too frightened to pull the trigger; taping a list of my regular offenses to my desk and asking me to put a tally mark next to each offense whenever I committed it–????), but this just feels—I am only 12, and an overachieving B+ intelligence at that—extremely wrong. My class numbers 30; I notice no one else looking bamboozled or otherwise uncomfortable. But I hold on to the feeling. I will wonder for years about what they were thinking.
The next weekend, I ask my mom to drop me off at the babysitter’s, aka the public library. I speed down the stairs to the kids’ section, and look up as many books on MLK and the Civil Rights Movement as I can find. I spend the morning and afternoon tearing through the pages. I am already reading relatively adult material, so I make it through multiple texts and notice what I am not yet able to identify as a consensus: Dr. King is not by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of the American people; if anything, he seems to be a fighter against the worst strains of the American “way.” In the midst of a blissful yet disturbing reading hangover—it will become one of my favorite feelings—I sit back, surrounded by three piles of books, and arrive at a different lesson than “Never trust a textbook” (I will get to that eventually, under more intelligent pedagogical auspices): “Never trust a teacher.”
I proceed to wreak havoc upon the teacher with imaginatively incorrigible behavior for the rest of the school year—except on those days when my mom is his substitute.
I am quite serious when I say that this particular experience with a horrible instructor was the first step I took toward the career I’d eventually embrace, however oblivious I was at the time. It was the beginning of a lifelong intellectual focus that shows no signs of ever letting up: social justice and “race” relations in the United States. It was incredibly important for me during my next six years of schooling—when for the first time I would sit side by side in a classroom with people of color, imperfect in my grasp of inequities though I was (and still am, but I’ll never cease working at it). And, all kidding aside, it gave me the opportunity to test myself against authority at a very young age; this man was very bad at his job, and I was given a real-life opportunity to confront badness and act against it, as opposed to just reading about it.
Lesson: Sometimes I think that the worst teacher I ever had just happened to be the most influential one I ever had. It’s the yin and yang, I suppose, and, though of course I’d encourage those of you who have bad teachers now to strive to comprehend their effects reflectively, I can’t help but remind current teachers to think about just what they might be remembered for–if this is what I vividly remember of that man 44 years later. It’s a scary deal, and it’s all too real.