Life as an Extreme Sport

Friday Five

The Friday Five is a LJ question list. Every Friday, five new questions are asked, generally on a related theme, and you answer them in your own journal. The ones for this Friday got me thinking, a bit, as they were about teachers. Things like who were your favourite teachers, what they taught, your best memories…

Mr. Wright was my 6th grade CORE teacher; CORE was basically your English and History class, taught by the same teacher. Math, PE, etc — taught by different teachers, so you rotated classes every 50 minutes or so. (On top of that we rotated schedule daily, too — if class was ABCDEF one day, the next it was BCDEFA the next, and so on — but I digress). CORE was an attempt to keep up around one person a little longer, and make sure there was someone to help with our basic writing skills, etc.

6th grade was my first year in public school; I had been in a private Christian school from kindergarten through 5th grade, and in addition to very small classes, we were encouraged to work at our own speed. For all intents and purposes, by the time I was in 3rd grade, I was reading and writing at a 12th grade level, and the next two grades were a chance to finesse my skills rather than build on them. (I would often spend the entire day in the library, those last two years, curled up in a chair and reading.) So coming into the public school system was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t originally tested into the gifted and talented (GATE) program, I apparently missed the cutoff margin by a few points, but after two weeks of “regular” class, the teacher begged them to transfer me. Guess I was a bit of a troublemaker… So I had the double fun of joining a new school and having all my classes change on me, to move me into an area where it was hoped I’d be more challenged. It wasn’t my idea of fun.

Mr. Wright, on the other hand, was. For one, he thought our textbooks were useless, so instead would assign us to go do independent research on a subject, and then come back and teach the rest of the class about what we learned. I remember choosing to research about the black death, and having a lot of fun explaining in graphic detail what the various forms of the disease did to you. We’d have about a month to research, and then a week to teach the material, and then our choice of test or paper to decide how well everyone learned the subject.

His big focus, though, was social activism. Over the course of the year, we would spend time in class preparing sandwiches to give out to the homeless people in downtown San Jose. We would organize food drives, and spend our evenings in the National Guard Armory soup kitchens. This was the year of the Tianamen Square massacre in China, and we raised funds to build a replica State of Liberty for the students in China, wrote stories and poems, drew pictures, and did what we could to bring more and continued awareness to the situation. The poem I wrote and illustrated was picked out of everyone’s to be framed and displayed in Norm Mineta’s office; I hear it moved with him when he was given a position in the Bush Administration and moved to DC.

Mr. Wright was a dreamer. One of the other things he believed strongly in was the importance of computers. He ran a BBS, the Chalkboard, and encouraged us to turn our homework in via computer. If we didn’t have a computer or modem, he would longterm lend us a dterm and modem (150/300 baud — woo). He was convinced it was how the classroom was going to change, and what homework was going to move towards — much to the scorn of the majority of the faculty. He and my father really got along, at least on that front…

Mrs. Callahan was my 7th grade GATE CORE teacher. She was bored with textbooks, too, so she had us cover the walls of our classroom with butcher paper, and draw in a new planet. We had to study planet formation to understand this, from gravity to rain forests and ecosystems. Once we finished that assignment, we learned how to fill out job applications, and the jobs we were applying for were on a spaceship traveling to this new planet. The rest of that year, everything we did was framed in the context of this spaceship, our job, the new planet. It was kind of cheesy, and I remember a lot of us being a bit embarrassed by the entire idea (myself included). But at the same time, it was a lot of fun…

She was the first teacher I had who wasn’t “normal”. And by normal I mean, she seemed cool to us kids. She had tinted purple hair, dressed in what I now realize were sort of new romantic clothes, and she liked a lot of the same music we did — Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran. She was another social thinker, liberal and passionate. I remember her bringing in a taped performance of Michael Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror” and after making us watch this, led us in an analysis of the lyrics and what the point would be behind singing such a song. About how it is we go about making change.

I don’t remember all of my teachers, of course, but I remember a lot of them. Mrs. Stone was the teacher assistant in 2nd grade; she and I have the same birthday. She would always find me, after that year, on our birthday, and bring me a cupcake. Played a mean game of tetherball, too! Mrs. W (she was Polish and we never even tried to pronounce her last name) was the aide for 3rd thru 5th grade, and took those of us “advanced” students aside for math for a few years. I was developing my rather smartass attitude by 4th grade, and she made some comment to another student about how she wasn’t going to take lip from anyone shorter than her. Well, at that point I was already a good few inches taller than her, and also standing by her at the board working out a math problem. I remember her whipping around before I could get more than a smirk out, and telling me that she wouldn’t take lip from anyone taller, either, and she could still break my kneecaps if she needed to. It cracked me up, and I see a lot of my current rather sarcastic attitude as her filtered through me.

Mrs. Cobb taught the smallest class I was ever in, a joint 5th/6th grade class. My fostered sister was in that class, as well as several people I had become good friends with — but there were still only about 14 students. This was the year of practical jokes, of rubber cementing everything to her desk, fishing wire to rig drawers to fly open. Of sitting in Mrs. Cobb’s bright red pickup, listening to Simon and Garfunkel — music she wasn’t allowed to bring into the Christian classroom, but she thought we needed to hear, anyhow. I guess I never really thought, before, about the fact that she taught with music, but she did, constantly. We were always going out to listen to something or another, stereo thumping, trying to hide from the principle.

The brief time I was in high school, I didn’t have any teachers that really made a difference to me, or really even much of an impression. But the vice principal liked me, and would frequently catch me cutting class to hang out in the computer lab or library. We struck a deal — I stop cracking the school grading system, and he wouldn’t turn me in to attendance. I suspect it was his affection would kept me from getting into a lot of trouble when I blew up the science lab…all three times. He knew I was bored, and knew why, and really pushed for me to graduate early and get my butt on to college. Probably one of the better decisions anyone ever pushed me into.

I guess the seeds were planted early. I think back on these teachers with great fondness and a lot of memories, but I also see bits of them in me. The way Mrs. W would use sarcasm to defuse a situation, using current media events and social causes to teach with from Mrs. Callahan and Mr. Wright, how what’s in a book doesn’t mean much if you can’t connect it to the outside world. That you need to tolerate the people who learn in all kinds of different ways, and that independent research and then turning around to teach it to someone else is the best way to learn. I suppose I have a strong pedigree, only strengthened by the last few years in CHID.

One comment

  1. My Junior year English lit teacher rocked. Her class was run more like a seminar than a lecture, and she was hard as hell. She was a total sweetie, and we got to be friends outside of class. She also let me stash scores I’d written in her office desk, since lockers could be searched, and the orchestra teacher wasn’t on my side. (And would tell my parents any time he saw me composing.)

    Lucky, my first “official” composition teacher, was another such person. He was one of the kindest, most loving people you’d ever want to meet, and he brought that to his teaching. He was also one of those people who could discuss any subject intelligently, and I’d be worn out after my lessons, trying to keep up with him. I miss him a hell of a lot, and I still can’t believe he’s gone.

    I suspect John’s going to be the same way…we didn’t always get along, and things were rough starting out, but I’m thankful I stayed. 🙂

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