On Public School, and People Who Make a Difference.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or you know me in real life, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I wasn’t really a normal kid. Now that I’m an adult who works with children, I’ll admit that you couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to voluntarily work with a student like me. I was that kid who was 100% sure I was smarter than the vast majority of my teachers. Through all of elementary school, the vast majority of middle school, and the beginning of high school I was constantly bored. Being constantly bored meant I was constantly in trouble. Not the flashy sort of trouble that gets one noticed by administrators, but the low-level trouble that encourages stressed-out educators to roll their eyes at an ornery student and then give them free reign to do what they will.

Very early on in my school career, I learned that teachers would either love me or hate me. There was no in-between, no ambivalence of feeling. I get it, now. I was precocious, persnickety, and had a chip on my shoulder the size of a small mountain. For teachers who were overworked and underpaid, dealing with me — helping me, nurturing me, encouraging me — was often a futile and time-consuming effort.

You know what though? A cadre of dedicated public school teachers helped me, nurtured me, and encouraged me anyway. I’d like to acknowledge them below:

Kindergarten — Ms. E: Ms. E, a woman who seemed incredibly old at the time, but was probably in her fifties at most, had the patience of a saint. She refused to put up with my nonsense, and doggedly rerouted me when I made my daily attempt to escape to the reading nook during art time. I have a strong memory of her making me color in a fish for Chinese New Year. When I finished, she gave me a 150-page book to read on the subject.

1st Grade — Ms. G: Ms. G was an amiable, silver-haired Italian woman who was consistently flummoxed by my behavior. This wasn’t helped by the fact that my classmates would bet candy bars and other lunchtime treats on how fast I could blast through required reading with our parent volunteers. Still, Ms. G was unfailingly kind, and took my quirks in stride, going so far as to let me speak with her daughter, who was a Broadway chorus girl. To this day, I superstitiously drink Diet Coke before auditions just as Ms. G’s daughter did. I know it’s all psychosomatic, but I’m convinced it helps me sing my best.

5th Grade — Mr. J: Mr. J was my brother’s 5th grade teacher first; he so impressed my parents that they asked the school to put me in his class. The man was hilarious. His form of discipline for trivial offensives like omitting a name on a paper or leaning back in your chair was repeatedly writing silly, multi-stanza poems. The more you committed the crime, the more lines you had to write. This combination of whimsy and pragmatism served 10-year-old me incredibly well. Mr. J made me feel valued without feeling exploited (considering this was the year after my 4th grade teacher shoved me in the corner with a big book and a dictionary for a month, that’s saying a lot). I use his percentage calculating tricks to this day. No need to whip out the calculator to tip at restaurants thanks to Mr. J.

6th Grade — Ms. R: 6th grade didn’t start out so well for me. At first, I was placed in an English/History block with a lovely older teacher all the other kids loved. Of course, her class — a veritable slew of art projects accompanied by a severe shortage of books — was eleven-year-old me’s idea of her worst nightmare. Eventually, my parents’ advocacy allowed me to be switched to a different class with Ms. R. Ms. R accepted only my best, and she took me exactly as I was. My first week in her class, the rest of the kids had biography reports due. At the time, I was on something of a Tudor kick and reading a 600-page treatise on Queen Elizabeth I. Even though my book certainly wasn’t on the 6th-grade required reading list, Ms. R let me give my presentation on The Virgin Queen  anyway.

Later that semester, when I couldn’t participate in a Literature Circle because I’d, uh, already read all the books being discussed in Literature Circles, Ms. R let me read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all on my own. Then she let me give a 25-minute presentation comparing the books themes to Shakespearean ideals in Romeo and Juliet. It was one of the first times I felt like school had a place for me, and it was all thanks to Ms. R. When, a few years later, she asked me to come back as her T.A., I couldn’t refuse (plus, she paid in an easy A and weekly King Size candy bars).

8th Grade — Mrs. B: As one of the only public school teachers I’m still in touch with, Ms. B. might actually end up reading this, so shout-out to you, Mrs. B! Mrs. B was both my English teacher and the director of the middle school drama club. She collected theater-inclined misfits and carved them out a space free of ridicule, shame, or pity. She treated a rag-tag collection of hormone-laden pre-teens as intellectual equals. It was in her classroom that we could blast the soundtrack of Rent, act as though we fully understood the issues we read in the news. She also patently refused to take any of my crap (are you sensing a theme yet?). When, in a somewhat typical fit of anti-authoritarian pique, I refused to complete the end-of-the-year English project because I deemed it ‘not intellectual enough’, Mrs. B promptly gave me a D in her class. It was the worst grade of my life, before or since, and I can’t thank her enough for it. Mrs. B wasn’t afraid to show me that intelligence isn’t enough in the real world. That sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want to in pursuit of a larger goal.

9th Grade — Mr. H: Mr. H was my freshman honors English teacher. A bear of a man with a thick hipster beard a few years before the term ‘hipster’ was in vogue, Mr. H casually taught his students advanced etymology and rudimentary Ancient Greek. He also gave me the first of many intellectual beatdowns that made me into a better writer. His critiques were so brilliant that I’ve saved them all. On my analysis of The Merchant of Venice, Mr. H wrote the following:

“Dear S,

I wanted to take the city bus to the mall, and you gave me a Ferrari with no transmission. It’s beautiful and breathtaking to look at, but it does absolutely nothing to get me from point A to point B.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that your essay is a Titian statue that squirrels have gnawed holes through. It is a thing of fundamental beauty marred by major structural flaws. You might have gotten away with it before, but not here, Buster! I’m giving you a B+ for sheer audacity in thinking that pretty words alone would fool me. I’m expecting college-level stuff next time, young lady!”

Enough said.

10th Grade — Ms. P: Ms. P was my sophomore honors English teacher (again, themes!). She was a young, sarcastic, vibrant woman who was consistently fed-up with my unwillingness to bring my best self to school. She spotted me gobbling Keats and Orwell and George Eliot between classes and demanded I bring that same passion for literature to class every day. When I decided I was done with public school — fed-up with my district’s desire to focus on following the directions more than critical thinking skills — she was the first to volunteer to write my recommendation letter. I’ll never be able to repay her for that.

Look, my public school experience wasn’t perfect: no one’s is. Indeed, I eventually jumped ship to private school for my last 2 years. That being said, it’s components of the public school system that are broken, not the folks in it. Not the bright, dedicated teachers who show up day after day, year after year, and continue to give so selflessly. I know that if not for the teachers I just mentioned, I may have succumbed to anxiety, depression and feelings of alienation. I know that if not for those teachers, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Teachers make the difference. Support public schools.

Middle School
Public schools are beautiful too.


Day 37: February 7, 2017



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