The Bad Ones, Part Two–Junior High (1974-1977)

It’s not like I’m picking on anyone here, or maligning public schools, which I will philosophically support until the day I die, which produced me (a decent if not perfect citizen), and which provided me a space to do what I was born to do, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s just that, again, when it comes to teaching, sometimes it’s the learning what not to do that really counts. I think of a line Bob Dylan sang, “…I’m loving you / Not for what you are / But for what you’re not”; I think of the unfortunate truth that you can’t know if and why a book’s great unless you’ve read a horrible one. So that’s how I’m going to frame this–by what I learned what a teacher shouldn’t do as a student of those who did those things.

Don’t physically abuse students.

I realize that this is fairly easy to avoid today as–in most schools–corporal punishment is forbidden. I caught the tail end of the corporal punishment era, and I can verify that the practice does not achieve its intended effects, and that its unintended effects are the opposite of what the punisher desires.

I was whipped–yes, whipped–with paddles carved for that express purpose, that an alarming number of teachers had handy–37 times when I was in 7th grade. I know this because I was a statistics and mathematics freak, and I counted everything that mattered (my fascination with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a little over a week after I was born, was likely the stimulus). Administering these mild beatings were usually study hall-“teaching” coaches, but my shop and art teachers also got into the act, and my phys ed teacher, a coach whom I respected, whipped me on the last day of school because (he told me) he was the only coach who hadn’t yet.

What’d I do to deserve this treatment?

Early on, I was simply testing limits. The art teacher just called my classmate David a “Polack”? What would he do if I not only pointed out his bigotry but also asked him how he’d feel if someone called his wife a slut? OK, so I was not very good at equivalency statements, but I was 12! His also being my church’s minister did not keep him from whipping me and sitting me out in the hall for a week.

So my study hall teacher / football coach has a funny voice and covertly dips snuff in the classroom? Why not, when he steps out to talk to another coach, duck down in my seat, hide behind the head of the kid sitting in front of me, stuff my tongue in my lip, and precisely imitate his trademark idle threat: “Y’all best keep your mouths shuuuut or I’m gonna take ya out in the halllllllllll!” I didn’t know who Levon Helm was at the time, but he’s exactly who this guy sounded like. My impression was so close to the real thing I could make the entire study hall sit up straight. One day, he didn’t quite step outside; he was tucked just inside the door frame, beyond my line of sight. I let it rip, picking on one of my best friends: “Hey, Mike Craig? You best git yer mouth shut or I’m-uh take you out in the hallllllllllll!” Mike, sitting a few seats in front of me, had seen the coach get up and move, but still he stiffened like he’d taken an electric shock. Unfortunately, the coach heard–and saw–me, too: “Overeem, grab the board off my desk and git out in the hallllllllll. Nowwwww!” He actually asked me what “cheek” I wanted it on, then blasted me thrice as the two other coaches he was talking to burst into laughter.


After those initial encounters, I’d come to a few important conclusions:

1) It’s more than possible to get punished by a teacher for something the teacher himself did wrong that you just happened to point out.

2) Some teachers are sadistic bastards that enjoy inflicting pain.

3) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who have no sense of humor about themselves.

4) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who, out of laziness and lack of imagination, are short on strategies.

5) “Getting busted” (what the coaches called it) only hurts for about 30 seconds.

6) “Getting busted” is also a guaranteed attention-getter–and a laff-riot.

The practice’s impotence as a deterrent transferred the power to me. The practice’s extremity transferred attention to me. The practice’s barbarism transferred civility to me. As a true-blue seventh grader, little was more important to me than me, so I tried to get busted as often as possible.

Having finally caught on, teachers only whipped me 18 times my eighth grade year, and I didn’t get whipped once as a freshman (more than a little credit should be given to my having incrementally matured). But the lessons those 37 beltings delivered stick with me still: admit your mistakes, work at reducing student pain, learn to laugh at yourself, develop a tool-kit of strategies for non-violent direct action against student “high-spiritedness,” control the show by making your lesson attention-worthy and witty, and strive for justness, not power.

“I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Math, 8th grade

Another Last Day of School Picture

Don’t just stand or sit there. Don’t just flip transparencies, hand out worksheets, or click through slides. Don’t drone like a muezzin. (Actually, I would now find that interesting.) Look the hell alive! Life is short, education is forever!

Many of my junior high teachers acted as if they’d rather be anywhere else. I had a math teacher that you’d have thought must have had an invisible gun to his head. He taught grudgingly–think about that! One of my science teachers relied on overheads to let him think about his football playbook for the bulk of the hour. One of my history teachers blatantly twisted his eyebrow hairs and read wrestling magazines behind his desk while we worked on endless worksheets. Another history teacher we called “The Tree,” due to his tendency to break down our past into dualities: “Over herrrre [left arm extended, left palm turned down and cupped], we have the Axis, and over herrrre [right arm extended, right palm turned down and cupped], we have the Allies [hold pose, pause, let learning sink in].” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that history did not necessarily tranquilize those who taught it.

When a teacher did show enthusiasm–I’m serious about this, and you have to remember, I was a junior high boy–it was almost sexually arousing! In the case of one of my math teachers, there was no “almost” to it; you’ve seen it in the movies, but I was once forced by an unexpected anatomical event to decline her invitation to work a problem on the board. Sexual attraction and engaging educational content: a devastating combo!

To be clear, though, the lesson I took with me in this case was to try to teach each lesson as if it were my last, as if each second mattered, as if, should I bomb, students’ lives would be scarred forever and they’d remember me as a failure. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have always refrained from micromanaging my lesson plan so I’d have to spend some of my class time operating without a net. It works. And, at least for me, it’s exciting, and fun. For all involved, I hope.

“I repeat, I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Shop, 8th grade

Last Day of School 7th or 8th Grade

If you don’t know your stuff–if you don’t love your stuff–do us all a favor: Do something else for a living. Having your summers off (news flash: it’s actually more like two months, we don’t get paid for it, and the time we spend working at home adds up to at least a summer’s equivalent) is not worth ruining 179 days of 120 students’ lives.

An art teacher who didn’t do art. A science teacher who excelled only in handling transparencies. A social studies teacher who clearly was connected to the study of society only as far as the textbook explored it, and who could communicate about history only in the textbook’s words (“Don’t read it to us again! You assigned it for us to read last night!”). An English teacher (oh so many of those) who didn’t seem to think that, for example, the ideas of Mark Twain applied to her own life–wasn’t that the whole point? A physics teacher who asked me not only to write and/or proofread but also grade his tests. I was in eighth grade. And not a fantastic science student.

I’ve been lucky in this regard because I loved to read and write before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But once I made the decision and began contemplating the difficult practical realities ahead of me, I flashed back to those moments when I’d made an ass out of myself and disrupted my and a whole classroom’s education. The common reason why? Not because I wasn’t being challenged; that’s my problem to solve, not the teacher’s. Most of us recognize and respond to teachers who are not only lively, and just, and kind, but who also know and especially love their material. The energy generated by deep and broad knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and a desire to share what the material’s done for you is the best classroom control tactic of them all. Why did Miss-uh Phipps-uh never have to lift a finger to redirect me? She knew Dickens, Steinbeck, Homer, and sentence diagramming like her own name, understood it so well she could simplify it for us or show us multiple ways into it, and actually enjoyed it to the extent that her fun was contagious. Why could I not wait to go to Mr. England’s physical science class, even though I was a notorious science bungler? He could not wait to put us in the driver’s seat and help us do science, with majestic but affectionate sarcasm and fool-proof advice. He could always convey what science was worth, and when you finally earned his praise, which was never withheld without logical reasoning, you got repaid with warm humor and a grin that crept ever so slightly out of his stoic visage.

I got into this business largely because, whether this is the experience of the average American or not, I frequently saw a fun job being botched, and realized it wouldn’t be so hard to do correctly, and really enjoy. For once, I was right. I thank my “Bad Teachers of Junior High, and quite sincerely, for making the mistakes that sent a beam of light down my pathway to success. Without them, I’m not sure I could have honed my understanding of a very complex task, and reached the point where I could freely make mistakes of my own.



The Bad Ones: Part 1–Elementary Years (1968-1974)

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.

Fourth Grade

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.