Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Where I Come From, Part Two

High School.  See me on the street and ask me if I'd ever go back, and I'd say "hell no!" and keep on walking.  That's the knee-jerk version, anyway.  The thing of it was, while I was there, in Grades 7-12, which was how our high school was set up, I had my good days and bad days, just like everybody else.  The thing we fail to realize when we're teenagers is that all of us are fighting our own battles.  The kids who seem to get everything they want, have everything they want, get the best grades, get all the great boys/girls, they're all fighting battles and struggles, too.  You see each other every day.  Most of the time, people like to keep it a "representative" of themselves that they see at school, but sometimes, the tempers flare, and things can get Turbulent. 

I guess upon further examination, if you asked me if I'd ever go back to high school, I still wouldn't want to.  Not really.  But I'd like to sneak back and have a little talk with myself about lightening the hell up, not being so uptight, not being such an ass, giving everybody else space to go through the same growing I was going through.  I'd tell me that ALL of us were wrestling with something, even just insecurity and hormones, but most of us had bigger fish than those to fry, and that stuff just compounded the other things going on.  I'd tell myself that things get better, that I, along with everyone I knew, we'd all grow into ourselves someday, and for the most part, we'd all become really good people.

Seriously.  I DO have quite a vivid memory, and sometimes, when the house is quiet, and I don't have anything better to do, a memory slips in where I was a complete horse's ass, where I didn't handle something right, where I could have been a lot more mature or nicer or less uptight.  I'm not sure I'd like the junior high-high school version of me.  I really am not.

Before I start on what my high school teachers mean to me, I want to say to everybody that knew me back then, I'm really sorry for being insufferable.  I know I was.  I had some real immaturity to grow out of, a sense of entitlement to have corrected, a dose of humility to take.  Make that a bottle of humility.  I think there were times I left wakes of ill feeling, and I'm really, really sorry about that.  I'm trying to be a better person now.  I'm trying to be more judicious.  And when I remember what a puddle of puke I was in high school, I really and truly thank from the bottom of my heart anybody who knew me then who still talks to me.  And for anyone who knew me back then and dodges out of the way to avoid me seeing you first, I get it.  I totally get it, and again, I'm sorry for being insufferable back then.

So I think that given the climate in which high school teachers teach, they really deserve a lot more respect than what they get.  They get us at that age when we start sharpening our teeth on the bones of the adults in our lives.  Our parents bear the brunt of it, and then our teachers have to deal with our rebellion, our poor attitudes, how we're ill-equipped to deal with stuff that fifteen years down the road, we remember and think "why'd I get so wrought-up over THAT?!"  And people are people.  In high school, really, personalities start coming out more, we get more outspoken, and there are true clashes, personality-wise between students and teachers.  I had my teachers I got along with better than others.  But I learned from every single one, and there's not a one of them I'd avoid to this day, talking to as People and not so much as a Teacher.  So here we go.

My seventh grade homeroom teacher was Mr. Ripley.  In high school, they did homerooms by last name, so it was never a surprise who would be in your homeroom, but your teacher could be kind of a surprise.  Mr. Ripley was the junior high "resource room" teacher, so I wouldn't have had an opportunity to know him, except for homeroom.  Mr. Ripley was really good about greeting each of us by name, saying hello to us in the hall.  He was good at small-talk, which is something I've always struggled with (and yet, I was always getting called out in elementary school for being overly chatty.  Hmmm.) He was really good about making each one of us feel important for a minute or two.  When I think of Mr. Ripley, the first words that come to mind are "good sport, good guy."

Mrs. Bloom was my Pre Algebra and Algebra I teacher.  She was a fun person.  I liked her as a person.  I hated Pre Algebra and Algebra I.  It was the stuff of my nightmares, and we played a lot of kickball in Pre Algebra and Algebra I those two years.  Kickball was also the stuff of my nightmares.  It was one of those situations where a brilliant teacher was having a couple of awful years.  I appreciate that now, and I understand.  One thing that's stuck with me that Mrs. Bloom taught me is a set of tricks for being able to tell at a glance what numbers will divide into another number.  Everybody knows that if the last number's even, you can divide it by 2.  And if it ends in 5 or 0, it's evenly divisible by 5.  But there's one for knowing if a number is divisible by 3.  You add up the digits, then divide the sum by 3.  If you get a whole number from dividing the sum of the digits, then the original number divides evenly by three.  Also, Mrs. Bloom was always saying she wished she could drop a Midol in the water and have all of us junior high girls drink out of the fountain.  It was funny when she said it, even back then, when we WERE in need of Midol.  Even in the midst of everything she was going through at the time, Mrs. Bloom still had a good sense of humor and a quick, contagious laugh.  And her tricks for knowing if a certain number is divisible by another saved me a lot of time on calculations when I took my pilot's written test, believe it or not.

Mr. Baker was our ninth grade science teacher, but only for part of the year, because there was something with certification, and the Grades 7-9 science classes got all jumbled up that year, and we ended up with Mr. Baker for only half a year, and then Mr. Bennett for the other half.  But I remember the giant Periodic Table of the Elements painted on Mr. Baker's back wall.  He was a stickler for calling "soil" "soil" and not "dirt," because "dirt is an invention by Madison Avenue to get you to buy soap!"  And also, "not all chemicals are toxic; water IS a chemical, and you drink it every day!  You need it in order to live!"  Mr. Baker was also a volunteer firefighter- he might still be.  I think it takes a really great person to do that, volunteer firefighting.  And he had really good stories from that.  Those stinky farm-pits (where farmers store the cow-poop until they spray it on the fields) were just a nuisance to me before I was in Mr. Baker's class.  But he told about how you could literally DIE from falling into one, and not just die of embarrassment because you fell into a pit of poop, but the methane gas could suffocate you.  I'm not really sure why it's THAT story that's so prevalent in my memory from Mr. Baker, but it is.  And then junior year, he was the lunch monitor for my lunchtime.  I had an early version of a Brita water filter, and he told me that those water filters were great for getting chlorine taste out of water, but they didn't do anything for microbes, so if I ever took my water filter out hiking, not to trust it to filter out any microbes that would be in any water I'd think to fill my water bottle up with.  That's stuck with me, too.  I'm an indoor girl and I don't "hike," but I've had a filtering water bottle along other places with water fountains, and if the water fountain looked skeevy, I'd remember Mr. Baker telling me "those filters won't do anything with the microbes that could be in that water!" and just shuffle right past those skeevy water fountains.

Mr. Wood was the guidance counselor.  He was always there to chaperone a trip, to head up a boy scout troop, he and his wife volunteered their dogs as pick-me-up animals at the local hospital, they themselves were volunteer firefighters, and members of the Potter County Clown Organization.  How fun is that?  To me, Mr. Wood was more than a guidance counselor.  He lived service.  I mean Service, with a capital S.

In Mrs. Fessenden's Home Ec classes in seventh and eighth grade, I learned that if you're having people over to your house for dinner, don't serve broccoli or other pungent vegetables that can make an unpleasant impression when they come through the door, and also, make sure if you're serving milk, that it's cold-cold-COLD!  I still use my recipe for Saucepan Brownies every so often, and I will always remember that the carambola is known as the "star-fruit," because of its distinctive shape.  The other night at Wegmans, I wheeled Zoe past the carambola in the produce section and told her the yellow fruits were called "star-fruit."  She clapped her hands and reached out.  I thought she wanted a star-fruit.  As it turned out, Shane was standing right there, and Zoe wanted out of the cart.  But still, I kind of wish I'd paid more attention in Home Ec.  It's kind of an important class, once you're out on your own, but it seems like that class is always one that gets pre-empted for achievement testing or other interruptions.

On the flip-side of Home Ec was shop.  Back when I was in school, Shop Class was still Shop Class!  We even got to use the real and dangerous tools.  Back then, Mr. Gamble was the shop teacher, and if you thought you were going to blow off shop class and not respect it, like maybe you'd blow off Home Ec and flirt with the boys at your table instead of paying attention, you had another thing coming in Mr. Gamble's shop.  Like I said.  We used real and dangerous tools.  A classmate of mine left part of his finger or thumb on the bandsaw.  Someone else had an unfortunate incident with the forge and suffered a burn to the hand.  And Mr. Gamble didn't let you off the hook for doing shoddy work in his class, just because you were a girl.  If you tried to turn in a project that had "half-assed" written all over it, he'd make you either try to selvage it, or start it all over again, from blank wood.  The thing I learned from Mr. Gamble was that even if you didn't want to be in a class, even if you didn't think you'd ever use in your life the knowledge of the workings of a drill press or sand-block, you have enough respect for your work to give it your best.  You don't make excuses for yourself.  You don't just phone it in, brush your hands off and call it a day.  You do your damn best.  Mr. Gamble's the guidance counselor now, and I know that especially with the college-bound students, he pushes them to Think and Do Big.

Mrs. Shirk.  Mrs. Shirk!  The larger world might remember Mrs. Shirk for her brief appearance on Survivor:Palau, where she was packaged as "Wacky Wanda," which I've always thought was horribly unfair to her.  Mrs. Shirk was my seventh and eighth grade English teacher (and is the mom of one of my BEST friends!)  That whole thing about "Wacky Wanda" and her indiscriminate and incessant singing is just a thread in her fabric that got plucked and blown out of proportion.  The REAL Mrs. Shirk taught with ENTHUSIASM!!!  every so often, she'd pull out the ukulele and treat us to a chorus of "Eatin' Hog Bellies with Stuffin' Inside!" but most of the time, she did her best to make things like grammar and spelling matter to us.  Besides the hog belly song, I bet there's not one of us who was in her class that can't recite what an adverb tells: "Who What Where When Why TO what degree, To what extent, and UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS?!"  A, an, and the are articles!!!  Besides that, Mrs. Shirk always cared very deeply for her students.  She would go to great lengths, even sacrificing her own personal dignity to get a point across and make it memorable.  She instilled a sense of personal responsibility in her students, urging us to think for ourselves, to be ourselves, to stay true to ourselves.  There's nothing wacky about that!

In seventh and eighth grade literature class, my teacher was Mrs. Wilcox.  I didn't think Mrs. Wilcox and I were going to hit it off, the third day of school in seventh grade.  I really didn't.  She had a system of "detention points" that you'd get for infractions ranging from minor to major, although for the Major Infractions, I think she just wrote you up for detention.  Anyway, three detention points got you a night of detention, and on the third day of school in seventh grade, I grabbed the wrong comp book out of my locker- so many comp books!  Only three minutes between each class!  Reading was eighth period! Wha-a-a-a-at?!  So, I realized too late that I'd grabbed the wrong comp book- I grabbed my math comp book instead of my Reading Journal (*stupid, stupid!*).  When I told Mrs. Wilcox, she scowled that scowl only a teacher can wield, and sent me to my locker to get my Reading Journal, but informed me that I had One Detention Point.  I was snuffly as I went and got my journal, and when I got home that night, I made sure I never made that mistake again.  My college friends always laughed at my propensity for color-coding, but there was a reason behind it- I clear-taped a different color construction paper to the spine of each of my otherwise identical manilla-colored "Modern" composition books so I would never again earn another detention point for bringing the wrong book to class! 

As gruff as she came off as being that first week of seventh grade, Mrs. Wilcox soon showed she had a wicked sense of humor.  I remember one time in our 8th-period 7th-grade reading classes, one of us girls got snippy with her- I don't remember which one of us, but I DO know it wasn't me- she'd put the Fear in me that third day of class and I minded my Ps and Qs in her room from then on- but somebody pulled an attitude with Mrs. Wilcox, and she rolled her eyes and intoned under her breath "well, excuse me all to hell, anyway!" and when my friend Danielle said "What was that, Mrs. Wilcox?!" Mrs. Wilcox cleared her throat and grinned and said "I burped."  Brilliant!  Another time, my friend Jeremiah had apparently had enough of his day, and enough of our five minutes of compulsory journaling.  And it was a day that Mrs. Wilcox was doing one of her random journal checks.  She stopped at Jeremiah's desk, picked up his journal, and read, "Dear Journal, today was a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, VERY, very, very, very, very, very (....) long day.  The end."  Our whole class sort of took a collective breath, waiting for Jeremiah to get a Detention Point, but Mrs. Wilcox tipped her head back and laughed.  One day, she gave our entire class Wienermobile whistles and instructed us to play them.  Oh, you haven't heard Wienermobile whistles until you've heard a classroom of them whistling along in chorus!  I don't think it was for any other reason than that it was wintertime, and we'd all settled into the doldrums, and Mrs. Wilcox and the whistles shook us out of them!

It was in eighth grade that I had another disagreement with Mrs. Wilcox.  Nothing that caused a rift or anything.  But I did resent having to read Johnny Tremain.  It wasn't my thing, it was boring, I just didn't want to read it, and I wasn't going to!  Mrs. Wilcox told me I WAS, in fact, going to read the book, and she'd dare to bet that I'd end up liking it.  Well, I read it, but hated the ending, and I told her so.  "So write a new ending," she said.  And I did.  And I've been writing and re-writing my version for the last two decades, for no other reason than it's my safe place, they're my old friends, writing-wise.  Before that, writing never occurred to me as something that I wanted to DO, let alone that I was any good at.  In eighth grade, she sent me to the Mansfield Ready Writing Contest, and I went (with mixed success) every year following, through senior year.  It was from Mrs. Wilcox that I learned that writing was something that I could do, that I was good at, and that was kind of an escape from being an obnoxious teenager, a way into another world.

We lost Mrs. Wilcox too soon, in the summer between tenth and eleventh grade (for me).  She was fifty-six or fifty-eight, I think.  At the time, it seemed a lot older than it does now, but still too young. I think there might be more from Mrs. Wilcox, maybe another day.  But the kernel here is that I thought we weren't going to like each other, and she turned out to be one of the most influential teachers in my life.

In ninth grade, it was Mr. Parsell's last year of teaching.  He was a hold-over from when my parents were in high school.  In the Sixties!  Woah!  The first day of ninth grade (he taught history for ninth graders and Problems Of Democracy for seniors), he asked me if I were Gerry's daughter or Wayne's daughter, and I asked if my answer would affect my grade, and he said he didn't have to ask further.  I was obviously Gerry's daughter.  Mr. Parsell used a lot of colorful expressions.  "Shooting fish with a hammer."  "Lights out, the party's over."  "Goodnight, Irene!"  Looking back, he was kind of the Rick Jeanneret of Northern Potter, both for long tenure, and for the colorful turn of phrase.

Mrs. Walizer was a legend.  She was the librarian of the school from when it was built until a few years after I graduated.  That's over four decades.  When you went into the library to buy index cards, you'd tell her how many you wanted, and she'd pick up her deck of index cards, and I can't really describe the motion, but they'd kind of whi-i-i-i-ii-r onto the library table, and there would be the EXACT number of index cards.  I tried it once, when I was on her morning announcement crew, junior and senior year.  Index cards went everywhere.  She made me pick up every last one (rightfully so!) and make sure they were all lined-side up, with the top line at the top.  I still don't know how she did it.  She never missed!  The index cards never just clumped and spread all over like when I tried it.  Another thing Mrs. Walizer said, when we had seventh grade library class, was that she pulled the books out on the shelves so their spines were even with the edge of the shelf; that way, no dust would build up on the edge of the shelf (that you could see, anyway), and you wouldn't have to dust the shelf.  And that was good, because she said she "hated dusting!"  She was another of those teachers who could appear gruff, but then show a really wicked sense of humor, too.  I adored her, and not to take away from Mrs. Walizer's successor, or the current high school librarian (a friend of mine!), but to me, Mrs. Walizer will always be the once and future librarian of my high school.

Mr. Duperron was the Ag teacher, and I never took Ag, but I had a couple individual study halls with him when my regular study hall teacher had something else to do.  The Ag kids loved him.  I thought he was a funny little round man with mutton chops, and I was scared to death of him because I couldn't understand a damn word he said.  I didn't want to get thrown in the pokey for insubordination for not doing something Mr. Duperron told me to do, because I honestly didn't understand the words that were coming out of his mouth.  He was from some foreign country like Rhode Island, or somewhere.  Everything was "Dumas," (pronounced DOO-mas).  He'd send you down to the office for some Dumas Paper (what the hell?!- the secretaries would just smile in that way they would that all but said "bless your heart," and you KNOW what that means, and hand you a ream of regular paper).  If you weren't doing what Mr. Duperron thought you were supposed to be doing, he'd call YOU the Dumas.  Wha-a-a-a-aa-T?! When I was at college, I was telling my advisor about Mr. Duperron, and how everything and everyone was "Dumas," and stopped right in the middle of my story with a realization.  "Oh, my God!  Duperron called me a dumbass!  THAT'S what 'Dumas' was!"  And I just burst into laughter.  My advisor got a chuckle out of that, too, because I think sometimes, he would have liked to have a word like Dumas to throw at me.

Mrs. Kibbe was around to teach French (and German for the kids who opted for that language) for my ninth grade year.  I liked French class, and really liked Mrs. Kibbe's twisted sense of humor.  She had this thing about Peeps.  She suggested if any of our relatives had a Velvet Elvis painting, we ought to bite off half a Peep and stick the other half to the painting (to promote family harmony and good taste, I think).  She told us that the best way to eat a Marshmallow Peep was to open the package, and put it up on top of the refrigerator for a few weeks, so they'd get a little stale, and then they had a good crunch.  I tried it (of course!), and aged Peeps DO have a pleasant flavor and quality all their own, a little like the inside of a vanilla Oh Henry bar that you put in the freezer.  At Easter time, my friend Amy brought in enough yellow Peeps for the whole class, and Mrs. Kibbe pulled out a bunch of miniature French flags with wire stems, and we each impaled our Peep with the French flag and sat it on the windowsill.  The plan was that on the last day of school, we'd burn all our French papers and have a Peep roast. 

I think that someone must have gotten to Mrs. Kibbe and told her we were "that class," because one Monday, we came in, the Peeps were gone, and there was no more talk of us and open fire for the rest of the year.  She also pointed out one day that Ramie Solis and I were anti-establishment.  Ray was, because his Sabres T-shirt was sewn so it looked like he was wearing it backwards and inside-out, with the logo upside-down.  I was anti-establishment because I wore white shoes before Memorial Day.  I allowed as to how I thought it was Easter, and she correctly corrected me.  Noted, Mrs. Kibbe!  At least now when I break that rule, I KNOW I'm breaking it, and for that, I thank you!

Miss Hopple, who taught us how to type (on typewriters!) in ninth grade, was the business teacher, and also the soccer cheerleading advisor.  I was a soccer cheerleader!  I was a disaster at typing on the typewriters, and I was also a disaster at cheerleading, but I made kickass cheerleader-posters.  I'm proud of me for my posters.  But I remember Miss Hopple told us at a soccer game one day, that we could keep our canvas cheerleading sneakers white by spraying them with Tilex when they got all crudded up. And I used Tilex on many a pair of white Keds until I decided I needed a shoe that added about four inches of height to my meager height allotment.  But the Tilex thing works on other white shoes, as well.  And another tip from Miss Hopple was that when you got a new pair of dress shoes, put your biggest, thickest socks on and wear the dress shoes around the house for a day, to get them stretched out so they won't press and rub so many blisters.

Mr. Doud was a math teacher, but he taught the maths I didn't get to take.  Instead, he was my homeroom teacher in Grade 9 and also again senior year.  But senior year, I was on the announcement crew, so I was never actually in homeroom.  My locker was RIGHT beside Mr. Doud's door, though, so I had to mind my Ps and Qs.  Mr. Doud has always reminded me of Tom Hanks.  If they made a movie about Northern Potter, Tom Hanks would play Mr. Doud.  Also, for two different years, as my homeroom teacher, it was Mr. Doud who'd hand me my report card every six weeks, except for the one at the end of the year that got mailed directly home.  In ninth grade and in twelfth (all the grades, let's be honest), there was always a grade on my report card that was startlingly low, by my standards, and I'd hyperventilate.  I was *that* kid. And Mr. Doud would talk me down and tell me my parents WEREN'T going to kill me for the bad grades.  Always did it with a straight face, too, and looking back, what he probably really should have done is smack me upside the head and say, "these are good grades, Wynick!  Get a grip!" But he never did.  He'd let me have my moment of self-pity, then tell me I'd be all right and send me on my way.  Teenage girls need to be dramatic, and it was good of him to let me be.

Oh, Mr. Lynch.  He and I didn't get along.  It was ninth grade Algebra II, eighth period, a time when all us obnoxious teenagers should have been taking a nap or in gym class, not in a class like Algebra II.  It was hard for me to think heavy-duty after 1:30, and this class was scheduled right before bustime.  Mr. Lynch expressed his distaste for this at the beginning of the year, and then we pressed on.  In retrospect, he did the best he could with what he was given.  And I think a lot of our clash came from me Just Not Getting Algebra, and him giving me more credit than I deserved and thinking that "not getting it," and asking him to explain it again, different, was me being a smartass.  I know I could come off like a smartass at 14 when I didn't want people finding out how much of a dumbass I really was.  But one day, when we were working on Matrices, NOBODY in the class was getting the message.  And instead of all of us, especially Mr. Lynch, just banging our heads against the wall or floor or whichever hard surface was most punishing, Mr. Lynch did something pretty amazing.  He asked for help explaining it to us.  He left our classroom, went down the hall, fetched Mr. Kosa, and Mr. Kosa explained the magical, mysterious matrix to us, and we all did pretty darned well on that test.  So even though Mr. Lynch and I had our differences and to this day he probably thinks I was a smartassy dolt, I have to admire him for realizing that we'd all reached a dead-end together on the matrix, and that he needed someone else to help us get past that roadblock. It wasn't poor teaching.  I think that was a BIG lesson he taught us that day.  When you've gone as far as you can and don't know what else to do, the strongest thing you CAN do is send up a flare and let someone help you out.  That's a big, BIG important lesson, Mr. Lynch.  Thank. You!

Mr. Curry and my class have an interesting history.  He was our science teacher for seventh and eighth grade, and then was furloughed while we were in ninth, and came back to teach senior high science.  Mr. Curry and my class butted heads a lot, and Mr. Curry and I butted heads a lot (he told me once I was lazy, and I resented it... because he was right).  But the thing about Mr. Curry was that he had integrity.  He tried to make us "get it."  He gave us projects like building an atom, and he gave us "magic square" quizzes.  He advised us to think for ourselves instead of going along with mob mentality, something my friend Kim famously lampooned all the time, Mr. Curry's "You're born alone, you'll die alone" speech.  But he was right.  In the end, the only thing we have to go on is our own moral compass, because the thing about mobs is that over time, they tend to disperse and you're left standing on your own.  Mr. Curry is another of those teachers that I didn't always like as a teacher, but I always adored as a PERSON.  And to this day, when I have to study something, I use the SQ3R method: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review!  Hated it when I just wanted to plow through bio or chem homework, but it, and keeping obsessive notebooks, has never done me wrong.  For my college friends, it was Mr. Curry who got me on to making flash-cards!

Miss Barker was the girls' gym teacher for my first few years of high school.  She always let us do archery at the beginning of the schoolyear, as archery was one of her passions in life.  Even though gym class wasn't one of my favorites, Miss Barker was.  She had a sweatshirt she'd wear sometimes that said "Progress, not perfection," and I've always reminded myself of that when I slip up on something I've been trying really, really hard to get right.  She was our health teacher in ninth grade, too.  My friend Berb, on a vocab quiz in Health class one day, facetiously defined "starvation" as "living in Somalia," and Miss Barker marked it wrong but conceded that she admired Berb's sense of humor.  Miss Barker was always really upbeat in our gym classes.  And I still think it's pretty cool that she taught girls' gym how to shoot a bow.

Miss Brenner/Mrs. Bieser took over for Miss Barker as girls' gym teacher when Miss Barker left to pursue other things.  Miss Brenner's (that's how I knew her in school) approach to gym was different from Miss Barker's.  The first thing Miss Brenner did was teach us how to use the weights in the weightroom!  WOW!  She taught me how I could use weights to strengthen my quads and hamstrings, so my knees wouldn't be such weak spots.  For a little while, our gym classes were thirty-five minute-long aerobics sessions!  (Miss Brenner was an aerobics instructor, too!)  I couldn't walk at the end, but I LOVED it!  She once said that sometimes, when you're feeling crappy, instead of laying on the couch, get up and move, and you'll feel so much better.  It's so true!  And on the days when I kind of don't want to go workout at the gym, I hear Miss Brenner say that, and I think 'you know, she's right. Time to get movin'!"  And I feel so much better when I'm finished!

Because junior year, there were only 6 girls in my gym section, our class combined with the boys' gym class for most things, and senior year, we also did a lot of joint classes with the boys.  Mr. Burdick was the boys' gym teacher.  I didn't know him very well before junior year, and he was another one that kind of scared the crap out of me.  He took a lot of guff for it from the parents of the softer kids, but he graded gym class like he meant it, damn it!  (in those days, the thing that scared me most in the world was a poor grade)  I knew him mostly from watching him coach the JV boys basketball team on pep band night.  He'd get ANGRY!  And now he was pretty much my gym teacher!  I was done!  Except I wasn't.  I found out Mr. Burdick was actually a lot of fun.  He wasn't so much about having you be excellent at gym class, but he was all about having you be excellent at TRYING.  Mr. Burdick is the one that introduced me to hockey.  We'd play with the boys.  I think that's what you need to do.  Throw a bunch of drama queen teenage girls in with the boys for hockey in gym class.  If this happened regularly, say, once or twice a week, there would be NO drama!  None!  I went into gym junior year as one of the soft kids.  I got hit in the face with a floor-hockey puck, mauled by a hockey stick, creamed into a wall during a particularly rough game of basketball, and rode down a ski-slope on my face on our gym class field trip to Ski Denton (after that last one, I asked Mr. Burdick to point me in the direction of the bunny slope.  "Wynick," he said.  "You just came DOWN the bunny slope!  On your face!")  Much as I wanted to, during all those things, I didn't cry.  You don't cry when you take gym with the boys.  You don't cry, for God's sake.  No crying.  You get back up.  You take a breath.  You walk it off.  You get back in there.  I wasn't such a soft kid after eleventh grade gym.  Above everything else he ever taught me in gym or 11th grade health class, that lesson, 'get up and don't cry and get back in there!' has served me the best.  And also that you don't have to be excellent at everything, but you DO have to be excellent at TRYING.  There's no excuse for half-assery.

In high school, I was a "music major," meaning I was in band and chorus and all the special groups I could be in.  Not Show Choir, though.  I was not nearly coordinated enough to dance, let alone dance and sing at the same time.  Mrs. Galley, the chorus director, taught me how to breathe.  She taught us ALL how to breathe.  Sit up straight, and don't breathe from your shoulders.  Breathe from your diaphragm.  If you have to, lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent- we did this one day in chorus.  When you breathe, pay attention that your stomach rises and falls with each breath.  Get a feel for that.  Now do that while you're standing up.  And don't slouch, because it keeps you from breathing right, and also adds ten pounds to your middle.  I'll never forget that from Mrs. Galley.

Mr. Miller, the same who was the excellent sixth grade teacher, came over to the high school when my class did, and was the band director.  Mr. Miller made concerts fun.  He knew how to unwind a room full of nervy, wrapped-too-tight high school band kids.  He always wore a tuxedo to our concerts, an over-the-top velvet jobbie, with a bowtie and a ruffled shirt.  That alone was enough to make you grin (but somehow was EXACTLY what Mr. Miller ought to wear to a band concert!)  I still think, for my money, he shined brightest as a sixth grade teacher.  But he did make band fun, and I think I'd have the worst case of stagefright in the world if it weren't for Mr. Miller. 

Miss Valentine started out as my ninth grade English teacher.  She taught me creative writing and expository writing in tenth grade, and in eleventh grade, she became the school principal.  Before she was principal, she was the Student Council Advisor, and I was a fixture on Student Council all six years at Northern Potter.  There's so much that Miss Valentine taught me over the years, oceans of encouragement.  She was my first true mentor.  I mean Mentor with a capital M.  Not just with writing, but with just how to be.  I see Miss Valentine periodically- mostly when we do our annual school dental exams, and the school nurse PRAYS we get the exams out of the way before we find Miss Valentine, because once we see her, there's no getting a word in edgewise.  Miss Valentine and I pick up our conversation from the last time we saw each other, and it's like it hasn't been so long since last time.  As a teacher, she was dedicated and enthusiastic, and driven by a deep desire to give her students the best, to make them be their best.  As principal, she's no less dedicated and enthusiastic and driven.  And this isn't coming from blind adoration because I never found myself on the wrong end of one of Miss Valentine's dark looks.  Like I've said before, when I was in high school, overall I was one of the "good kids," whatever that means, but I had my moments of being a bitch on wheels.  And I'll tell you what, nothing let the air out of my tires like just a look from Miss Valentine.  If you've been on *that* end of that look, you know which one I mean.  Instant bowing of head.  Instant slumping of shoulders.  An "I'm sorry, Miss V," in a small voice.  Lesson learned.  I will be better next time!  I didn't get that look very many times in my career, because I hated feeling like I'd let Miss Valentine down. 

Mr. Donald Miller taught me French after Mrs. Kibbe left.  Mr. D Miller always talked to us like we were real people.  His was always one of my favorite classes.  Junior and senior year, I WAS the French class for my grade, so I got a lot of leeway, a lot of independent study.  I read Madame Bovary in French (my friend Berb was outraged that he made me read Madame Bovary- Berb had Madame Bovary confused with Lady Chatterley's Lover.  *red face!*)  He was one of my favorites, Mr. D Miller, because he never hesitated to call me out on my moments of bitchery and bullshit.  He didn't use those words, though. He would call me out, but before the conversation was over, he made sure I was out of the bell jar and that tomorrow was a new day.  When I started watching Family Guy, the Stewie character reminded me of Mr. D Miller.  In a good way. I like Stewie.  He has a dark and dry sense of humor.  That's Mr. D Miller to me.  And if you wanted to learn, he made sure you had the opportunity. 

Mrs. Garner was my study hall teacher in seventh grade.  For about a week.  I was chatty and social during what was a Study.  Hall.  She called me out for it, and I took up an extra instrument so I didn't have study halls.  We still laugh about that.  Besides study hall, Mrs. Garner taught us Computers in ninth grade, and tenth grade English.  She also taught Shakespeare and Journalism, and I don't know why I didn't take those classes.  They would have been right up my alley.  Mrs. Garner just hated Radio Shack.  Hated them!  And I don't know what she did to get herself banned from Radio Shack, but she was banned from Radio Shack, so she'd go stand just outside the store and wave at the Radio Shack drones inside.  To this day, that image makes me cackle like Woodstock from the Peanuts cartoons.  The most practical thing Mrs. Garner taught me, though, in tenth grade English, was the proper use of apostrophes and how to correctly pluralize things.  We also had to read a book called Follow the River in her class.  She read us the first chapter because she said if she didn't, we'd all throw down our books and never pick them back up because the first chapter was so violent.  It was.  I didn't like the book the whole time I read it.  It still isn't one I'd pick up again, but I think my life's a little richer for having read that book.  More importantly, I think that finishing something I started and wasn't wild about makes me a better person than if I'd just stopped reading the assigned book and swallowed the poor quiz grades.  Another form of integrity, that, I think.

Mr. Lander was our social studies teacher for seventh and eighth grade and then we were in his class for Problems of Democracy.  Boy, there's another class I wish I'd have taken more seriously, because look at everything that's gone on in our democracy since 1996.  I mean, WOW!  The thing that really stuck with me from Mr. Lander was that he was registered Independent.  At the time, most people around here were Republicans.  There were a few Democrats.  I thought it was crazy that Mr. Lander was an Independent.  He said it was because he couldn't agree with either party enough to side all the way with one or the other.  That's kind of lost on a bunch of seventeen year-olds who'd rather be doing anything besides talking about government, but it's something I've thought a lot about since.  I originally registered with one political party, but after years of giving it a lot of serious thought, when I moved back up home and needed to change my address again, I decided to switch parties.  To Independent.  Like Mr. Lander, I'd come to be more comfortable in the political gray area, choosing how I think on the issues for myself, instead of having my opinions passed down to me.  In his way, Mr. Lander was teaching by example to think for yourself.  Even if you don't get to vote in the primaries, and to understand why, as Indies, we do not get to.  What I wish is that Mr. Lander could teach an Adult Refresher Seminar on Problems of Democracy.  This time around, I wouldn't be skipping out on POD for class officer meetings and the like.

Mrs. Simonetti, the same one from the elementary school, came up to the high school, too.  She was our class advisor, junior and senior year, and I was always the class secretary.  As a class officer, we got to spend time with Mrs. Simonetti where she was more of a person than just "teacher" to us.  I know I say this a lot about teachers, but Mrs. Simonetti had a really fun sense of humor.  She made sure we kept our class prom classy.  She taught us how to get the wrinkles out of our graduation gowns (a steamer- never an iron!)  She braved us on our class trip.  She used to "tan," and she had a T-shirt that she'd wear that said "U Can Never B 2 Tan."  I'd always follow it up with "Yes I can, Nan!" (her name's Nan!)  It would double me over, because there was so much unintentional rhyming, and also because even back then, me being a redhead, tanning and I don't mix.  Too, she was pleasantly surprised when our class chose "I'll Stand By You" by The Pretenders as our song for the prom.  "The Pretenders?" she said.  "From MY day?" Teachers ARE people, too!  They have music from "their" days!  They get a kick out of it when their students find out they like the same music!

Senior year, Mr. Bennett taught us physics.  He also taught us, out of the blue, that if you're a girl, never erase the blackboard side-to-side.  Always erase it in vertical strokes, because you don't want to give perverted boys a free-show.  Random, but true.  He also had this complex where he wouldn't go to any of the basketball games for a while if the one he'd gone to most recently ended in a loss for our team.  He didn't want to be a jinx.  He'd pretend that a lot of our sophomoric, adolescent humor went right over his head, and then he'd sucker-punch us with a zinger of his own when we'd least expect it.  He got a new red Blazer right before school started our senior year, and while the weather was still nice in September, he decided to teach us about momentum and acceleration by taking our class (there were only 6 of us) on an impromptu field trip to Tastee Freez in Coudersport for ice cream.  That wouldn't happen these days, but that's why I'm glad I grew up when I did.  It was fun to see Mr. Bennett so gleeful.  Gleeful.  That's the word that I think of when I think of Mr. Bennett.  Sly grin, dancing eyes.  Also, 'mad scientist,' in the best possible way.  If Harry Potter were real and Mr. Bennett were in it, he'd be the one to invent and manufacture the Marauder's Map, I just know it.

When I was in school, she was Mrs. Hopkins.  By the time my sister got to senior high English, she was Mrs. Coyle, but a rose by any name is still sweet.  Mrs. Hopkins was the quintessential English teacher, I've decided.  She was kind, but her kindness was not to be mistaken for weakness.  When there were boys who didn't like to read in our class, she'd suggest to them that they try Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair.  I've never read it, but she mentioned it so much, I think I ought to.  She really tried to make sure that everyone in the class was engaged in the subject.  She'd been Mrs. Wilcox's best friend.  In eleventh grade, she had us do a project where we went into the woods and became "the transparent eyeball" the Transcendentalists were so fond of.  It was around Thanksgiving break time, and I did go sit outside, in the woods, and become the transparent eyeball.  That one English assignment really changed my life.  The point of it was to observe without interfering, without calling attention to yourself.  There are lots of times in real life when you need to observe without interfering, without calling attention to yourself.  There are even more times in writing when you need to do.  Mrs. Hopkins always encouraged me.  As my student council advisor the year I was president, she let me go off on my whims, no matter how ill-advised, and I learned lessons that way.  By falling on my duff when I needed to. And when I'd get mired down in self-pity, which was kind of my thing in high school, Mrs. Hopkins was there with a pat on the back, a "there, there," and then a good brisk shove when it was time to move out of it.  I think Mrs. Hopkins was one of those universally-beloved teachers.  She was definitely an example to me of how to be.

Mr. Kosa.  Geometry, Trig, and Calc.  The three Wicked Sisters, as far as I was concerned.  I didn't have a "math brain," but somehow I managed to stay in the High Maths until the bitter end of high school.  I got through it, and that's in no small part due to Mr. Kosa's teaching ability... and patience.  I remember one standoff with Mr. Kosa, where I was spazzing out about not being able to get trig, and I whined that I didn't get it because I was stupid.  "You're not stupid!!!"  he nearly shrieked.  "You're just lazy!!!!!"  That made the air leave my lungs.  There was no smartassy answer for that one, because boy, had he hit the nail on the head on that one!  By the eleventh grade, I'd developed this poor habit of just hanging something up if I didn't naturally get it.  A piss-poor attitude to have.  Definitely the wrong one to have in Mr. Kosa's class. 

Mr. Kosa valued and respected hard work and had little time for excuses.  He was tough, but it was more a tough-love thing.  He's say things like "You're not stupid!  You're just lazy!" because he wanted us to be our best, not because he loved being an ogre.  Not all medicine can be effectively given with a spoonful of sugar, and even though it would make me knot up inside, and spit blood at times, I really respect Mr. Kosa for knowing when the sugar isn't going to cut it anymore and letting the straight-up medicine fly.  Another day in trig, he reached the end of the line with our blank stares, and shouted "Math is not a spectator sport!  If you're here to spectate, then you can pay a dollar at the door to just sit here!"  Thing is, when I tried paying a dollar the next day, so I could just spectate, he gave the dollar back and growled that "I was kidding, April!!!"

There could be a whole book on Mr. Kosa, and in fact, I think he should write and market a book of his own, even one just full of his sayings.  My favorite was "This makes me mad enough to stomp on baby chicks!  This just FRIES me!"  My friend Berb's favorite is any of the quotes about staying out of the Free Cheese Line.  He should do that.  In the meantime, for my purposes here, I've got to say that besides all the straight-up medicine, like calling me out for being lazy when I absolutely was lazy,  there was a lot of laughing that went on in Mr. Kosa's classes.  Things most certainly got Intense.  But he did this thing where when he saw ALL of us had had Enough for the day, he'd change the subject, bring us back off our cloud of steam.  There were some days when we'd all get laughing so hard in Mr. Kosa's class, our sides would hurt.  After I'd graduated, my sister was in his calculus class.  She also played basketball.  She wasn't a basketball star.  She WAS a math star.  She got ten varsity points in her whole basketball career, and Mr. Kosa baked her a cake for her ten varsity points.  It wasn't to belittle her, but it really was to celebrate those ten points, even if it was in a tongue-in-cheek way.  I thought it was one of the coolest things I'd ever heard.  Colleen had fought for those ten varsity points, and Mr. Kosa, a basketball coach himself, was acknowledging that.

The big lesson I learned from Mr. Kosa, he wrote in my senior yearbook.  "You don't have to apologize for everything, just some things."  I used to apologize for everything.  I've become more judicious about the apologizing.  Take your work seriously, but don't take yourself seriously.  That, and I know I'm not stupid, and every time I feel like being lazy and phoning something in I shouldn't just phone in, I hear Mr. Kosa yell at me "Don't be lazy!"   That is something that someone like me needs to have stitched on a pillow.  Or across my forearm.

Mr. Kibbe taught us tenth and eleventh grade history and Senior Selected Topics.  In an age before The Tudors, he could get kids by the classful to remember the names and order of Henry VIII's wives, and how each was un-wifed.  He taught us how to look for and remember details.  He was already famous for his Current Events assemblies, a kind of high school quiz-show style head-to-head to see which class's team knew the most about Current Events.  He later expanded into Jeopardy assemblies.  When I was in school, Current Events happened twice a year, and Jeopardy once.  Each was an EVENT, enormous undertaking.  They were epic.  And a lot of fun. 

Mr. Kibbe's energy is what really always has stuck with me.  Mr. Kibbe is another one that could have a whole book to himself, and he's the quintessential "Dad," I believe.  But what always amazed me about Mr. Kibbe was that he worked all day at school, would ref volleyball and basketball, depending on the season, and then get up at 4 in the morning to tend to his family farm.  "I like to get up that early in the morning," Mr. Kibbe would say when we'd ask him why in the heck he'd get up willingly at 4 am in the morning.  "I like to breathe the air before anybody else does!"

When I was in college, I'd get up at 5:30, which is ungodly early for a college kid.  And when people would ask me why, part of it was because I didn't like to be hurried around in the bathroom, which turned into Grand Central Station around 7:30, 8:00, and also, I'd say what Mr. Kibbe always would say.  "I like to breathe the air before anyone else does!"

These people were my family, all of them.  You don't go to a school for six years and expect to just walk out the doors a last time and not have it feel like you've had a limb taken away for a while.  That feeling hit me hard, right after I stepped off the stage a last time at graduation.  I was leaving and I wasn't coming back.  All these people, who'd acted as stand-in parents during the school day, friends, I wasn't going to come back in the fall and get to see them every day.  I could always come back and say "hey," but I couldn't expect to disrupt other kids' time with these teachers.  And coming back and saying "hey" wasn't at all the same as being there, day-in, day-out.

I think high school teachers are especially great people, given that they have rather hostile working conditions, by nature of their pupils.  Half-formed humans running around thinking they have all the answers.  Won't be told anything.  I feel very lucky to have had so many teachers who could get past that, and teach me before I swam off to a bigger pond. 

Tomorrow, I'm taking you to college with me.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you April for this trip down memory lane.

    ReplyDelete