Monday, January 24, 2011

Teacher Story Blowout

Okay, let's start getting into more of these teacher stories. First, from Dan Quock.
I honestly can’t remember a single mean-spirited teacher. (Of course, I could be unconsciously blocking the memory.) I recall teachers I couldn’t relate to, apathetic teachers, and strict teachers, but I don’t recall any that were necessarily mean. One teacher, though, stuck out in my mind.

He taught all three courses in Aerothermodynamics.


His classes had a high-failure rate: about half would pass. As you could guess from the name, it’s a challenging course without having the odds stacked against you. For the quarter, the total class points one could earn was in the neighborhood of 120 and they were all in the tests and final. A test was worth about 15 points and usually had only 2 or 3 questions, so if you skunked a test, that was an automatic grade reduction.

No curve. He did not believe in “D”s, claiming that you either knew the material sufficiently or you didn’t. Test scores usually had an inverted bell curve distribution. Homework did not earn you points, but you had to do homework just to learn the material.

Tests were open-book, but they were designed to be used for reference only. You had no time to learn during the test. I still remember this one exam that covered different engine cycles and the question was for a type of engine not covered in class. A lot of people failed that one. When you took the test, he would call out “time” when the hour was over. Then he would pack up his valise and walk out the door. I’ve heard of a few students who didn’t immediately notice and had to chase him down the hall to turn it in. If he got too far from the classroom he would refuse the test and you’d get a zero. On the other hand, if you hand the test in early, he would immediately start marking it up in front of you. He graded quickly, too. Sometimes we would stand a few paces from the desk, sort of flip the paper at him, and then quickly turn away so you wouldn’t see his red pen bleeding all over your paper (and thus ruin a perfectly good day).

Which reminds me - classes were only offered at 7 am and 8 am and office hours were at 5:30 am. I think he might have had office hours occasionally at 9 am, but I don’t recall. The only times I remember being at his office was when it was still dark out – eyes bleary from a few blessed hours of unconsciousness – struggling to understand the workings of Brayton cycles.

He was very fair – in a Machiavellian sort of way. One time two students made a similar mistake on a problem and was scored differently. The student with the lower score grabbed the other test (without the other’s permission) and showed him the two tests. He admitted his mistake and took points off the other test. Needless to say, we never approached him with scoring abnormalities again.

In spite of all this, many students worked hard to rise to the occasion. Despite all the struggles, people took it as a badge of honor to be able to claim that you had made it through all his classes. I would also say that you knew the material VERY well at the end of the year. Your knowledge in other classes may have suffered, but you were a whiz when it came to thermo. He was a legend to the students. At my job interview, my interviewer saw we went to the same college and she immediately asked me if I took classes with him.

I needed a LOT of help from friends smarter than me to get through it. I’m thankful that they were good enough to explain it to me three, four, or more times to help it get into my thick skull. Ultimately, I think most students admired him because he was fair. He made his expectations very clear and he didn’t waver from it. He wanted his students to be the best.

That's a terrific story, and I think all of had demanding teachers who challenged us, but with a spirit of fairness.

Here's another story with a darker tone, from Bob Iannucci.
8th grade, 1977. Retainer that caused me to sound like a lisping duck with an asthmatic problem. Puberty ravaging my mind and body.

I was a fairly smart kid, loved math, easy going, very shy. 8th grade brought Algebra, and Algebra brought Mrs. Monster (name changed). Mrs. Monster was married to the beloved coach of East Haven High School's football team, the man the football field was named after, a small scale demigod in the small scale Italian enclave that was East Haven.

She was old, had a face creased like a raisin gone too long in the sun, and she was mean. I've never met anyone who had the ability to smell fear on a person before or since. Perhaps time has colored my memory, but I think not.

Got an answer wrong? You were mocked--without humor, without the slightest shred of humanity.

Had a question about your homework? Mocked.

Didn't answer a problem in your homework? Mocked.

On bad days, really bad days, if you answered a question wrong, she would throw an eraser at you.

All i wanted to do in the 8th grade was not be seen, not be noticed, blend into the walls. It was impossible to do that in her class. I think she reveled in picking out the most insecure kids - and I was no doubt one of them - and mercilessly deriding them. I can remember every day the knot that formed in my gut before class...I remember, as she went up and down the rows asking my fellow tortured souls the answer to the next homework problem, desperately trying to figure out which one I was going to get called on to answer, and the feeling of despair if I hadn't been able to answer it, or suspected it was wrong. My stomach is aching just thinking about it, 33 years later.

I still have the scars, physically - she is the reason I bite my nails, to this day. And I left 8th grade hating a subject I used to love and never did well in again. The cynic in me today thinks that any other teacher without her connections would have been canned, but I could be wrong. All I know is that my boys are under strict instructions that if a teacher ever treats them with anything less than respect, they are to tell me right away. No Mrs. Monster for them.

Those lines about his boys really struck me.

Now, and this is both slightly ribald and awkwardly funny, a story from Mike.
Over the New Year one of my best friends from High School (early 90s) and I were discussing the one teacher who always gave us trouble: Ms. Jackelope (name changed, obviously).

Now, a quick little aside. Before I had her as a teacher (I believe, sophomore year), I always saw her pushing a cart all over the halls. I quickly made the assumption that our school was nice to hire someone with obvious handicaps to do menial office work like return books to classrooms and such (seriously, there was always a huge book cart with maybe two books on it; remember, this was freshman year in high school, so some slack required). Everyday I’d see this person barrel through packed halls, not looking up, driving this book cart with determination. Until the next year, when I realized that this person was, in fact, my Algebra 2 teacher. So I guess I had some predetermined bias.

This was Ms. Jackelope. Short (5’2” at best), gruff, built exactly like those thankfully-out-of-style Troll dolls (same face) but with a 1960s librarian haircut. She wore white, silk blouses and long skirts every single day. Her distinguishing feature? Huge breasts. HUGE. The clincher? Her nipples were always, um, “happy”. And just as enormous, like a baby’s fist. This was every single day, regardless of the weather. Now, you can see the confusion; I was a sexually charged sophomore (I don’t think I could have gone a minute without thinking about something sexual), confronted daily with what should have been, at the time, awesome. Instead, it was a thing of nightmares; something that would sneak its way in whenever I had “alone time”, something I can still picture clearly today (I can barely remember people’s phone numbers, but, by god, I can remember these novelty pencil erasers like I am still in class--seriously, I am breaking out in anxious sweat just typing this). Her boobs and accruement were so large if she had to write high on the chalkboard she would accidently erase whatever was at boob level or below.

On top of all this? She was an awful person. She seemed to formulate quick opinions and never change, treating you the same on day 50 as on day 2. She hated boys in her class and over-praised the girls. Girls talking? Ignored. Boys talking? Shut up or detention. Girl needs help? See me after school. Boy needs help? Do your homework. This was all year. At one point, I answered a question and followed it up with a stupid comment; the whole class laughed. She announces that the next person she hears laugh will get detention. I write on a note card “This class blows goats” and show it to the guy sitting next to me; he laughs. Gets kicked out of class and thee days detention. Now, of course, we were probably disruptive, but come on. There was no laughter in her class at all. It was what I imagined a private school in 1903 to be like. We quickly adopted the nickname “Troglodyte” for her after that (we were big into D&D). The negativity she spewed was really counter-productive for many in her class.

Apparently, though, she was well liked by the other teachers, and the girls in the class loved her. Go figure.

After that story, there's nothing I could possibly add.

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