When I was a child I saw things…. like a child.
I continue to be amazed at how many successful adults still view their High School experience through a “teen-age lens” (and to be fair how many of those who don’t). “Growing-up”, in my view means deconstructing all of the major developmental experiences in your life; and then reconstructing that information into a better understanding of who you really are… really. We are very much a compilation and configuration of our time-period, nationality, race, home cultural experience, religious experience, schools, neighborhoods, etc. There are situations that a young person may experience, that informs thinking going forward into adulthood; like that scene from The Autobiography of Malcolm X; where a teacher tries to convince him that his professional intellectual career aspirations should be lowered down to the limits of a manual laborer. Reflecting on, and even conveying that story to younger generations can be extremely positive and useful, as one reaches for and achieves higher levels of accomplishment. But things that occurred in our previous stages of development can also be a little subtle; and requires a mature and thoughtful analysis. Such was the case for me and my high school classmates; and our English Regents teacher from hell! This teacher was the embodiment of meanness. She never smiled, never made jokes, a deadline was just that, a deadline, she utilized biting sarcasms, never accepted any excuse for failure (“oh, the dog destroyed your homework; well the bad news is that the dog is not able to appreciate an “F”; but you on the other hand are fully able..”); She returned our poorly produced writing efforts laced with red corrections (grammar, spelling & punctuation); it was as if our writings were dipped in red ink (symbolically our blood:-), and so everyone labored hard to not be called up to her desk in order to receive an obvious paper full of red marks as she made no attempt to fold your paper so that others could not see your shame. She was not our friend, and made every effort to make sure we were clear on that point. She was universally despised (hate being too strong a word here); in her world bad work, through effort could be made good; and good work, through effort could be made better. But nothing, no amount of effort, no amount of extra effort made her happy; if she had “class favorites”, we had no idea who they were; and everyone in the class was fully convinced that she was “picking-on” them. Her occasional commentary on the upcoming Regents exam was more threat then inspiration: “Don’t you dare think of failing that exam; for if you do, you will spend summer school with me!” Talk about an incentive! And even after some ridiculously high percentage (which I don’t remember) of us passed the English Regents exam, we still did not appreciate that woman; I know I didn’t, for I did not have her sign my senior yearbook and I can’t remember seeing her signature on anyone else’s yearbook. Alas, good riddance; she was a one woman graduation incentive!
The first time I was able to see her through a different lens was that next year in college. I was sitting in a first-year chemistry class; and first of all, it was in an auditorium with a couple of hundred students. The professor was cold, official, ridged and held fixed and inflexible office hours (it was reported that a classmate saw him, by accident coming out of his office during his non-office hours; she just wanted to ask one question about a problem; without saying a word he simply pointed to the “office hour’s sign on his door”) At some point during the class he announced: “My task is to separate the real science students from the pretenders, and so you still have time to drop this class and sign up for the, chemistry for liberal arts majors.” The student in the seat next to me turned and said sarcastically: “well, that was inspiring.” Now to fully appreciate this moment; you would need to contrast this class with a history elective class I signed up for, that was actually in a classroom. The professor was welcoming, “cool”, did not keep to ridged office hours, was witty, told jokes, often extended deadlines, and unlike the chemistry professor often asked us what we thought. But I was able to get through both of these professors because I learned an important lesson in high school: Don’t get enrolled into the personality of the teacher; it is the job of the student to “manage” the relationship; I adjusted accordingly to each of their styles. The second experience where the “ghost” of my English Regents’ teacher would emerge took place in a college sociology course. The first hint came when the professor announced that there would be no “multiple, short, fill-in, true-false answer exams. All exams in this class would be essay and research papers responding to topics covered in the class. The entire class groaned in disappointment; I on the other hand, was ecstatic…”Wow, testing that involved writing only!” I did not realize until that moment how comfortable and confident I felt about writing for a grade. Later in the semester the final piece to the still developing puzzle lit up in my mind, and it all came together on a single day. One day after class; the professor ask if he could have a word with me. I could not imagine what it could be since I was doing so well in the class. After the room was empty he asks me a question (well, 3 questions): “where did you attend high school?” “Did you attend NYC public schools?’…(I thought: Oh man, where was this going? And then relief)..…“Where did you learn to write this well?”……. “I just find it amazing, the high level of your writing skills.” I felt so lifted by his compliments, I forget that I am so tired and must get a few hours’ sleep before I show up for my 12:AM-8:AM shift at the Post Office. I stepped out of the building and onto the campus feeling very good about myself; and of course, I wanted to spend the rest of the day showering in that wonderful praise…but in reality, as I walked toward the 145th street train station all I could think about was that high school English Regents teacher I so despised back then; I am ashamed because her signature is not in my senior yearbook… and I can’t, like so many things in life, go back and fix the past….I can see the red ink of her correction pen…I can hear her 50 writing rules we were forced to memorize, like the one on 1st drafts “don’t get it right, get it written”…or her 101 classroom rules; like the one that earned Ed MacDougal a “0” for not sitting in the middle of his seat! All of the “irrelevant” pieces of literature that I so hated then, but now I am so glad I read……I don’t even think she had a bathroom pass, and in any event nobody ever ask to go (“this is high school, take care of your personal needs during your lunch period; and as you may have noticed this is not your lunch period”)……no gum, no candy, back straight, both feet firmly on the floor; “I am collecting assignments, not excuses”… I am on my way to work; I am so tired…. how do I pull this off; Full-time student with a full time job…….At that moment I am able to see all of the folks in my past who did not accept excuses, standing next to her…I am so tired… but they don’t seem open to excuses now…They just say: “anything you want to say Michael?”…..I descend down into the subway; and descend deeper into my thoughts…I imagine that I am speaking to her…. “Thank you, I am so grateful”; as if she could hear my thoughts; but I can hear her standard sharp comeback inside of my head, above the roar of the coming train…. “Well, Mr. Johnson (as was her method of addressing us); “How do you like me now?”