Wednesday, June 27, 2012


"In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years."
-Jacques Barzun

I spend a lot of time tearing down teachers and the education system on this blog, and its for good reason. There are not a few awful teachers and the modern education system goes from bad to absolutely horrible. Yet in all the political correctness, multiculturalism, and lack of focus on education there are good teachers still out there struggling in a terrible system to try to do their jobs.

And they do good work. They still can teach kids despite the miserable system, and they are usually remembered well by their students. Because of these teachers, young people begin to learn and understand the world. Because of these teachers, some students have a chance to step outside the boundaries of their schooling and gain a good education.

So here are some of the great teachers I have had through the years, for different reasons.

Hazel Green
Mrs Gastineau. She was my first teacher, at Hazel Green Elementary School. This little four room school in the country was humble and small but Mrs Gastineau was an unusual person. The first day I went there was the first day I'd spent away from home and I was devastated. She held me in her lap as I cried and comforted me for a few minutes, then I started school.

My best memory of Mrs Gastineau was a project we had, a picture of a rocket. We were told we had to color the rocket in, then cut it out. So I slashed my crayon across the picture fast and evenly, all over the picture to get the rocket covered in red. Mrs Gastineau asked me why I didn't color within the lines and I said something like "we're going to cut it out so it doesn't matter."

Now here's a place where a teacher could react several different ways, but Mrs Gastineau broke out laughing and told me gently that the point of the exercise was to teach us to follow directions, which I then understood and we went on with school. She could have gotten upset at me. She could have thought I was being sassy (I wasn't, I was just being honest). She could have read me the riot act which would have made me feel absolutely horrible and broken my spirit. Instead she thought it was wonderful and gently taught me what I was supposed to be doing.

It was Mrs Gastineau who worked to get me to move up to grade 3 since by the end of the first year I was reading 6th grade level and had cruised through the stuff I was supposed to do that second year. That was mostly my parents, who had taught me to read very early. Apparently had I demanded to know how to read since all my older brothers were doing so. She was a good teacher, a kind heart, and a wonderful person. She was older even then and I doubt she's alive any more but I do really remember her and her warm, loving soul.

Flash Cards
The second teacher I remember well is a guy named Mr Noble who taught mathematics at Whiteaker Junior High (called Middle School these days). He was a light hearted guy who tried to make the experience fun for people, and he put up with silly comments from me in the classroom. When he talked about measuring something I had been reading a lot of Pogo at the time and I yelled out "feets!" when he gave a measurement in feet. Without a pause he corrected the measurement to "feets" instead. Because he thought it was fun, and the class might enjoy it.

I struggled with the multiplication tables. For some reason division made good sense to me but memorizing all those tables I just was terrible at. My brain doesn't readily leap to math very well and I just couldn't seem to pass that test that was required to move on. Mr Noble helped me out, pushed me, and worked with my mom to get me to pass it and finally I did. It was the first time in my education I'd had to really struggle at all and he drove me to get past this difficulty. I remember well the flash cards and memorizing all those numbers.

He taught me the patterns in math, such as the nines in the multiplication table. The numbers go up for the first digit and down for the second. See:
1x9 = 09
2x9 = 18
3x9 = 27
4x9 = 36
5x9 = 45
6x9 = 54
7x9 = 63
8x9 = 72
9x9 = 81
10x9= 90
The first digit goes from 0 to 9, the second goes from 9 to 0. They swap at 5-6. Just remembering that made the pattern easier to figure. All of the multiplication tables are in patterns like this, although some are easier to pick out than others.

But it wasn't until high school that math ever finally made sense to me. I had an algebra teacher there named Mrs Allen who loved math. She would see patterns in phone numbers that helped her remember them (555-1269 would jump out to her as 1+2+6=9). She helped me learn patterns, to see math as more than columns of numbers but more the engineering of reality so I could decode what was there instead of just remember formulae and tables.

She was the first person that pointed out to me that any number you can add up and divide by three is overall divisible by three. In other words, if you have a number, say 49272, you can add all the digits up (4+9+2+7+2) and get a number (24) which is divisible by 3. So that big number will 100% guaranteed be divisible by 3 (49272/3=16424) to get a whole number, with no fractions. Math is full of weird little things like that, and it made the whole exercise more interesting to me.

In a way it was frustrating because I became aware that if I was only clever and mathematical enough I should be able to figure out anything in math. After all, someone figured all this out, why shouldn't I? But I couldn't. My mind doesn't work that way, I'm not smart enough. But I learned to understand math under Mrs Allen.

The Fork
Mr Forkner is the next guy - again in math. This time it was Geometry, and I was failing his class. The problem wasn't the math, its that Geometry wasn't about math. It was about logic and structure reason. You started with fundamental presuppositions (called postulates) and built from those conclusions about shapes through a highly systematic method of calculation. It was math without numbers, math based on philosophical concepts.

And I just was not grasping this. It wasn't anything I'd even tried to understand before. I was smart enough to understand it, but it was so new and so unusual I was having a terrible time. Mr Forkner was a former minor league baseball player who we could sometimes get to start telling stories about his days in baseball. Nowadays I wish I'd listened because he'd have played with some greats; superstars of the 80s were minor leaguers in the 70s. But I treated it as a chance to do something else like write up AD&D monsters, to my regret.

Mr Forkner worked with me to help me understand the principles of geometry rather than just the lesson plan, and my grade crept up until I got a B at the end. And through it, I learned to think. I believe every child who can possibly handle it should be compelled to study and understand geometry because it teaches logical thought. It teaches you to think through a problem step by step using reason instead of emotion, and it teaches rational comprehension of an idea rather than gut instinct. Knowing this helped arm me against nonsense and has been the single most important learning experience in school I have ever had.

I owe Mr Forkner a tremendous debt of gratitude, which is probably why I remember his name so readily and several others I had to look up or call around to find. Without his teaching of reason and logic, I would have never been the man I am today. Sure, I'd have learned it eventually but getting it so early (age 15 or so) made a huge difference in how and what else I learned.

And finally there's Mrs Walters. I failed her class at college. I failed and pulled D's in a lot of classes there. By the time I got to college, I'd pretty much given up on the entire idea of school, I was sick of it and shouldn't have ever gone. But I learned a lot, so in one sense it was a good idea. I grew up a lot in college, isolated from home and everyone I knew for the first time in my life for such a long period of time. I had no friends. I had no family. I was in an entirely different setting, state, region, and climatic zone. 2000 miles from my home, I was isolated and lonely.

So I learned a lot about myself, about interacting with others, about life, and about people in general. And under Mrs Walters, I learned a lot about writing. Until I took a class at Calvin, I had skated through school. It was, frankly, easy except for a few bumps mentioned above. I hardly had to work at it. I got A's on my essays and papers without a second draft. I tore through writing assignments with comfortable ease.

Then I hit Mrs Walters. She demanded not just a solid concept delivered on paper, not just a convincing argument or an intelligent examination of the topic but proper writing. The spelling and grammar were no problem but the structure and delivery had to be right as well. I turned in my first paper (based on something I'd written for high school) and got it back with a big fat D on the top. I was astounded, never before had I gotten anything but A+ with glowing comments.

Mrs Walters required the paper be well-written, not simply effective and spelled properly. She insisted that the ideas flow naturally and easily from one to another, that the introduction properly set up the thesis without clutter, that the conclusion succinctly deliver the summary and close the written piece up rewardingly and conclusively. In other words: she required that you be a good writer, not simply a technically proficient one.

I bombed in her class, I got bored and annoyed and just stopped going after a while. But the lessons she taught and the shock of getting that first paper back stuck with me and changed how I wrote. I got As from then on again, but only because she taught me how to write. And I'm sure she'd mark red all over my posts here, to this day. I wish I'd stayed in her class and tried harder, to learn and to understand. I could have learned a lot more from her, I think.

And that lesson has endured with me for decades, helping shape what I do for pay - such as it is - now.

I had some lousy teachers in my time. I had some annoying and stupid ones. I had some that were not really there to teach at all - Mr Chapman comes to mind. Yes, he taught me Russian and German, but his real purpose, I'm absolutely convinced, wasn't so much to teach foreign languages as it was to be a recruiter for intelligence services - military, or CIA. I know that sounds nuts, but you'll have to take my word for it. I think about contacting him sometimes to see if my idea is true but I doubt he's even in town any more. He'd still be alive, assuming nothing bad happened to him.

But the good teachers, the ones who did their job well, challenged me, forced me to stretch and think... those teachers were the ones who I remember and who helped shape me into who I am today. I'm not so strong physically, I struggle with illness, but my mind is sharp largely due to the education I got in the past, and these men and women feature very strongly in that experience.

And if you're a teacher, don't give up. Don't feel miserable because you can't seem to reach the kids, you have no concept what is getting through or what they have learned from you. 99.9% of the time teachers have no idea what good they have done for a student. Years later, most of these teachers are probably dead now, and I can't thank them for their work. But I wish I could.

Just remember: I flunked out of a class and still learned a tremendous amount from one of my teachers.

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