The Best Thing a Teacher Ever Did For Me

With the end of  summer and the beginning of the new the school year, I’ve been reading a lot about teachers and students. There are so many stories of wonderful, dedicated, caring teachers who encourage, stimulate, and support students in their care.

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 seemed to take particular umbrage with me, covering my assignments 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. It didn’t seem to matter what either sort actually did, once they had earned their category their treatment was more or less predetermined.

As the year progressed, classes became more openly confrontational. There were shouting matches, students walking out mid-lecture, parents insisting that essays be re-evaluated by different teachers from different schools. 

Even though I was in high school — old enough to be managing my own academic career and negotiating what was also clearly a personality conflict — my mum eventually went in to talk to him. I remember waiting around nervously during their conference, feeling about six years old instead of sixteen.

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 we’ll make sure you don’t get him next year.”

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 had no interest in the material and that 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 by someone so closed-minded? That’s quite another.

Of course what my mother knew — and what Mr. F had never bothered to find out — was that I had been reading since the age of four, and had been writing and telling stories since I could hold a stubby pencil.

Mum could still recall what she laughingly called my proto-feminist diatribe: the assignment was to write about our “mailman” and I penned an indignant description about our female mail-carrier. 

So when she heard Mr. F make his pronouncement about her daughter, she saw him for what he really was: someone who was so wrapped up in his own importance that he hadn’t bothered to get to know his students.

Ten years later when I worked in education myself, I was not particularly surprised to hear Mr. F had been “reassigned” to a position within the government; such positions were often employed by administration as a way of solving problems with teachers who had developed reputations for being antagonistic with students and parents, and were no longer considered suitable for the classroom.

I haven’t thought about Mr.F in nearly a decade, but about a year ago I saw him in the university library. He was nearly twenty-years older but I still recognized him.

Briefly, I considered going over and reintroducing myself? I wondered how he would react if I told him that I’d earned a PhD in English Literature? Would I feel vindication or closure for his unkind assumptions? Or would he be more likely to criticize and belittle in just the same way as he done all those years ago?

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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