The Best Thing a Teacher Ever Did For Me

With the end of the school year, I’ve been reading a lot about teacher-appreciation. There are –thank goodness! — so many stories of wonderful, dedicated, caring teachers. My children are lucky enough to have already known some of the best of them.
The teacher who affected me the most might well have been my high school English teacher, but not in the way you might expect.

Mr.F and I rarely saw eye to eye. I couldn’t understand his marking criteria, and had trouble accepting what he insisted was the “right” way to interpret the texts we read.

He took particular umbrage with my writing, which as you may have observed (!) tends to be roundabout, covering it in illegible streams of angry red ink. He insinuated that my too-flowery vocabulary was a case either of chronic thesaurus-itis, or of outright plagiarism; that it might be symptomatic of a young person who loved words and language didn’t seem to occur to him.

I was not alone in earning his ire. There were students he liked, and those who he loathed, and it didn’t seem to matter what either sort actually did, once they had earned their category their fate was more or less predetermined. As the year progressed, classes became more openly confrontational. There were stories of shouting matches, of students walking out mid-lecture, of parents insisting that essays be re-evaluated by different teachers from different schools.

I recall being in tears of rage and shame when I discovered he had made worksheets with examples of “poor writing” drawn directly from student essays, a fair number of which were my own. Since I couldn’t, or simply didn’t chose to write the essays he wanted me write, in the way he wanted me to write them, it seemed he had concluded I was either too dim or too difficult to be worth the effort to teach.

Even though I was in high school, old enough to be managing my own academic career and negotiating what was also clearly a personal struggle, my mum eventually went in to talk to him. I remember waiting around nervously during their conference, anticipating a lecture at the end of it about ways I ought be pulling up my socks.

Except when she finally emerged, my mother, who was usually very serious about school work, waved off my inquiries.

“Don’t worry about him,” she told me, “just get through the class and make sure you don’t get him next year.”

I did just that. It took some tongue biting and some learning to merely regurgitate instruction rather than query it, but I did it. While I didn’t learn much about genuine literary analysis, I did discover that it’s possible to work through difficult situations in a relatively professional way. So it was still a valuable education, just not one the lesson plan intended.

It was only long after I’d graduated that I learned the real outcome of that meeting. Apparently, Mr. F had told my mother that in his opinion, I simply “wasn’t university material”.

As a mum now myself, I can only imagine how much that statement must have stung. To be told by a teacher that your child is not making the grade is worrying enough. But to be told something that you know isn’t true, and is based instead on an unfair presumption? That’s quite another.

What my mother knew, and what Mr. F had never bothered to find out was that her “non-university caliber” daughter had been reading since the age of four, had devoured most of Roald Dahl by ten, and by the age of sixteen had a history of consuming classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Rebecca, and Gone with the Wind in a single sitting. Mum also knew that I had been writing and telling stories — always in my own voice– since I could hold a stubby pencil. She still recalled my first detention (at four-and-a-half) when the assignment was to write about our “mailman” and I penned what she laughingly called my proto-feminist diatribe about our female mail-carrier.

So when she heard Mr. F pontificate about the efficacy of his teaching methods and make his pronouncement about her daughter, she saw him for what he really was: a teacher who hadn’t cared enough to get to know his students.

Ten years later when I worked in education myself, I heard Mr. F had been promoted to a position within the government. I also heard that such promotions were often employed by administration as a way of solving problems with teachers who had developed reputations for being antagonistic with students and parents alike, and were no longer considered suitable for the classroom.

I haven’t thought about Mr.F in nearly a decade, but just a few weeks ago I saw him in the university library. He was nearly twenty-years older and greyer, but I still recognized him. I wondered if I should go and reintroduce myself. How would it feel, I pondered, to describe the research that will (hopefully) earn me my PhD next year — in English Lit., no less? Did I want to try to explain that questioning the standard interpretation of texts is not only what makes my work interesting, but is also the very thing he tried unsuccessfully to harangue and humiliate out of me all those years ago?

No. To do that would be to validate his treatment and his unkind words, however perversely. I let him go about his business, unaware that the best thing he ever did for me was to tell me that I wasn’t good enough.

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