No one would doubt that Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan were strong women,
but so are tens of thousands of unknowns. One of these was my friend.
I’ve been writing forever, and I taught middle school for twenty-seven years, which sometimes felt like forever. I came in as an intern, which put me into a veteran teacher’s classroom for a time before moving to my own. The teacher I was under was wonderful, but tough.
Twenty or so years later I spoke at her retirement ceremony. I’ll leave her name out of this, since she deserves her privacy. That’s why there are so many “shes” and no proper nouns in what comes below.
These are the notes for that speech. I found them today and they made me smile.
She took no crap, and I took no crap, so we were something of a matched pair. When I started to read this at the ceremony, she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Is this a roast? I don’t want a roast.”
It isn’t a roast, it’s an homage.
I think it is fair to say that *** has a forceful personality. I can’t think of a time when I was in a room with her that everyone there was not aware of her presence. She makes an impression.
Over the years there have been a number of people who have changed their attitudes because she brought, shall we say, compelling arguments to the table.
She generally knows what she thinks, knows what she wants, and isn’t shy about saying so.
She doesn’t mind standing up for herself. Everyone who has ever met her knows that. But if you listen during those endless discussions we all get into in the teacher’s lounge, you will notice that she stands up for more than just herself. She respect herself and demands respect from others, but she also demands respect for teachers in general.
I can’t remember how many times I have heard her say to other teachers or aides, “Don’t take that. Don’t put up with that. You deserve to be treated better than that.”
I’ve also heard her say, “You’re really stupid if you do that. That will get you into big trouble, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.”
You always know where you stand with her.
* * *
She has been at our school long enough to become an institution —- longer, in fact, than anyone else except for the real old fogies like me. It is easy to forget that she spent most of her career at the elementary school. That is where I met her.
I was an intern, on my first day, when I was placed with her. She is actually a few months younger than I am, but she had been teaching seven years while I was off becoming a starving writer. She was mongo pregnant and I was to replace her while she was on maternity leave.
I had a few precious weeks with her before she went off to have her son, and even after she was gone I had the benefit of working in a classroom environment which she had crafted. In her absence I did things her way, and her way worked.
Most people who think they know her, don’t really. You can’t really know a teacher unless you have been in her classroom and watched her teach.
After she returned from leave, we continued to work together for a few months before I took over a different class part way through my internship. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in her classroom whenever I had the chance. Each of us has come to use the other as a sounding board. Those of you who have never team taught have missed something. You can learn a great deal about your partner, and about teaching, when you team up.
When she is teaching, she is the center of attention, but she is not the center of the lesson. This is a subtle and crucial distinction, and one that a person who has only see her lambasting the latest educational stupidity would miss. When she is teaching, she demands, controls, dramatizes, cajoles, exhorts, and forces student’s attention onto the matter at hand. She is the focus of what is going on, but what is going on is not about her. It is not a way to glorify herself, but a way to force her students to confront the tragedy of Anne Frank, or the importance of knowing their own family heritage, or the despair of the Wreck of the Hesperus.
A few years ago it became politically correct to say, “Be the scribe on the side, not the sage on the stage.” What contemptible crap! If you aren’t the smartest person in the room, why are they paying you? It is our job to be tough, organized, enthused, and relentless in bringing our knowledge to our students. But we must be the lens through which the students see, not the actual thing that they see.
I would have figured this out on my own, but I didn’t have to. It was all laid out for me the first day I walked into her classroom.
So I found these notes and wrote them into the computer. As I did, I had to consider the changes that have come about in these last few years.
My friend and I both knew that if I said something loud and contrary about the endless brown rain coming down from the state board of education, I would be seen as forceful. If she said the same thing (and she did), she would be a bitch. She never let that stop her.
If she has seen a glass ceiling, she would have taken an axe to it.