Recently, an article made me think about the many teachers I’ve had over the years. Now, I mean literal teachers – I’ll return to the metaphorical ones at another time. The article asked writers to talk about an important lesson a teacher had taught them somewhere along the way. As many were science writers, there was a good mix of science and english teachers full of wisdom about revising your work, not being afraid to experiment and to remember to harness what you love to be happy in your life work.
So, me being me, I tried to remember moments like this. I was one of those Students. A person who realized early on that she was good at school and little else. That my natural propensity to read everything I can get my hands on and to be able to remember it made school a walk in the park. Memorize a bunch of facts and spit them back out again? I could do that in my sleep. And did for many years. I had teachers who’d challenge me every once in a while – a hard read in advanced reading group would keep me occupied for a few days, my first research paper would make me nervous and send me into research realms I didn’t really touch again until college but honestly? School was a walk in the park until 9th grade.
A pair of teachers all of the sudden decided myself and fellow honors students had been living the easy life long enough. 9th grade Global History class was unlike anything we’d encountered – our textbook was college level and our teacher treated us like college students. Gone were the nicely organized notes and easy to follow questions where we could cite a sentence from the text and be done with it. Our teacher expected us to know the text enough to fill in the blanks of her haphazard key words scrawled across the overhead – we were there to understand history, not simply repeat a lot of dates. We learned Taoist exercises and wrote essays about surviving stranded in the Amazon rain forest – in short, we learned to apply history, not simply memorize it. It was revolutionary.
Down the hall, we met an English teacher who wasn’t going to give us a bunch of easy-to-answer questions simply proving we’d done the reading. This is when I really fell in love with the study of English literature – the idea that how I responded to a piece of writing was just as important as understanding the symbolism of the same short story. I wrote my first college worthy essay in this class, wrote my first actually decent piece of fiction and also learned that I liked the unconventional for school projects (I picked the one Greek deity who didn’t have a myth for a class project that year and adored her – I still see Hestia as the Archivist of Olympus). These two classes combined taught me a valuable lesson – I hadn’t liked school because I was interested in it, I had liked school because I was good at it, because it was easy. 9th grade taught me I could love school when it challenged me (I’m weird that way).
However, I learned how to play that game pretty quickly too and I also learned that as long as I did well on paper, my teachers seemed pretty happy with me. Being a shy person by nature, I only spoke up in class when I needed to and avoid presentations at all costs (barring French class of course – Madame requires her very own blog post someday). I would write a 10 page paper before I would willing open my mouth in class and most teachers let me get away with it. So, let’s fast forward to second semester of freshman year of college for the next pair of teachers that changed me.
I’d pretty much coasted through first semester without too much worry, had carried a 4.0 average without a single late night. Thankfully, I received another one of those double whammy wake-ups calls to make sure I got the most out of college. My Critical Methods professor was tough and opinionated. I was in the class with a lot of English majors in their sophomore and junior years who’d already used a lot of critical theory in class. Our prof was fine with freshmen taking the class but we had to pull our weight. I tried to impress in my first paper and ended up with my first bad grade of college. I’d understood the theory OK but hadn’t applied it well to my literature choices at all. So for my second paper I used my favorite theory, Readers Response and fell back on The Little Prince, arguably a children’s book. To this day, that remains one of my all time favorite essays of college – I needed to remember that understanding a theory didn’t mean I had to complicate it more.
However, the hardest, and scariest moment was yet to come. I was taking a Survey of Medieval and Renaissance Lit that semester with a bunch of juniors so I was afraid to open my mouth. Not that I would have on my own either but they were kind of intimidating. However, after our first quiz, the professor called me up after class. “You scored one of the highest on the quiz, why don’t you talk in class?” I remember stammering out something lame and shrugging my shoulders. Not good enough my prof said, either start talking or I’ll fail you. Now, failure is a major issue with me; my college admissions essay had been about my fear of failure. So, you can imagine, I was terrified. So, I started talking about anything and everything. Even the silliest observation I’d made about a poem I’d put out there and something amazing happened, others agreed with me or argued with me but no one laughed at me or flat out said I was wrong. That survey class became one of my most rewarding experiences of my undergrad degree and also finally got me over the fear of talking in class. My classroom experiences became so much more relevant, rewarding, and fun after I learned that lesson and its one that serves me well in meetings today.
So thanks to the teachers who challenged me to be more than I was – you taught me to write well, speak up, realize a mistake isn’t the end of the world and defend my opinions.