I don’t remember when and where I first went through this exercise, but it still makes a valid point. Without looking it up tell me who won the Super Bowl in 1987. Again, without using external resources, who was the most valuable player in the 1963 World Series? If you’re not into sports, then tell me who won the best actress award in 1993. I bet you can’t recall any of those people without having to research it.
If I would ask you, however, the name of your favorite teacher, how many of you could tell me not only who that teacher was, but what grade you were in when you had that teacher? Most of us can. Obviously, your favorite teacher was more important than the information in the questions above.
I have been blessed by being around a lot of teachers in my life. Some of them were my teachers, some of them were teachers that I worked with, and some are related to me. School is starting in many places this week, so teachers are on everyone’s mind. I wonder how many of us ever really thanked those teachers that influenced their life? I can honestly say that several teachers made an impact in my life.
No one ever believes me when I say that I am a shy person. But leaving that aside, I was absolutely petrified to speak to anyone. I started school as a first grader at Vilas Elementary in El Paso, Texas. My sweet old teacher Mrs. Wilson saw that I was struggling to talk to people and placed me at a desk with another little boy named Jorge who spoke very little English. This not only helped me have someone to talk to, but it helped Jorge learn to speak English. I still don’t know to this day how Mrs. Wilson knew that I spoke Spanish. I think it is one of those ninja things that teachers have. For the next 5 years, Jorge and I became good friends until I moved to the other side of town and lost touch with him.
There are two teachers in high school that really made a difference in my life. The first, Ms. Betty Griffing, was the speech and drama teacher at Riverside High School. I started off in her English class when I was a freshman. In that class she made us prepare speeches that we had to deliver in front of the other students. It was there that I discovered that this is something I enjoyed doing, and that I was really pretty good at it.
I used to be a student trainer in the athletic department until one day they changed the training staff and I no longer had a position. The change was devastating because this is something I enjoyed doing and it gave me a chance to earn my Letterman’s jacket. This is back in the day where only athletes were able to earn their jacket, and as small as I was in high school, being an athlete was out of the question.
Miss Griffing saw me sitting there almost inconsolable and asked me to become part of the speech and drama team. I thought “what the heck let’s give it a shot.” Over the next three years, she spent a lot of time honing my speaking skills and my limited dramatic skills. By the time I graduated from high school, I had become captain of the debate team, vice president of the student council, and president of the International Thespian Society, which is an honor society for drama students.
My time with Ms. Griffing was a little bittersweet. Although she did her best to refine my skills, she could be a bit overbearing at times, especially with her religious views. I know that she made a lot of people very uncomfortable with her views which resulted in some people leaving the program. This is certainly something that would no longer be tolerated in the school system today.
But I choose to remember her for her ability to get the most out of any student in whatever speech or drama activity they were involved. I thank her for the ability I have today to get up in front of a group of people and make presentations without the fear that so many people feel. As a side note, it is interesting that many studies show that the biggest fear most people have is speaking in front of a group. Most Americans fear that more than death itself.
The other teacher was a favorite of many. Ms. Honie Lou Lucas, later known as Honie Lou Laster, was the teacher for English IV, a class for seniors. Although I mentioned that it took me a while to get out of my shell and become a public speaker, writing was something I always thought I did well. Well, apparently I was wrong.
Ms. Laster, I thought at the time, was crazy. She made us write with the writing instrument from hell – a fountain pen. My handwriting was bad enough, but now I had to write with a pen that would blotch every other word I wrote? If having to re-write papers because of the ink blotches wasn’t enough, she wanted us to “justify” our writing so that it went from margin to margin. What did that have to do with writing? Nothing I thought. But, again, I was wrong. Her “crazy” rules made me more disciplined, made me pay more attention, and made my penmanship a bit more readable.
Writing essays and papers became an exercise in trying to meet all the guidelines that she set out for us. The harder I worked, the more she found for me to work on. That challenged me to try even harder. Finally, I remember writing a research paper on Sumeria. I had never worked so hard on a project in my life. I double and tripled checked my work. I thought it was perfect.
Do you remember “A Christmas Story?” Ralphie is asked to write an essay on what he wanted for Christmas, and he chose to write it on the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle that he coveted so much. With much pride and confidence, he strides up to the desk and hands it in, expecting to get not only an A+, but an A with many pluses after it. In fact, the narrator in the movie says “I knew I was handing Miss Shields a masterpiece. Maybe Miss Shields in her ecstasy would excuse me from theme writing for the rest of my natural life.” The result, however, was a disappointing C+.
That was exactly what I was feeling when I turned in my research paper. It was top-notch, high-quality, A-1, Pulitzer Prize winning stuff. Or, so I thought. I got an A-. I was pretty competitive in high school. (My lovely wife says I am still that way, but that is a story for another day.) One of my fellow students got his paper back, all marked up, with several suggestions for corrections, but he got an A+. What!!!!
I could not let this injustice pass. I grabbed his paper from him, picked mine up from my desk, and marched up to her desk, expecting that due process would restore the A+ that I thought I deserved. Ms. Laster just smiled, handed the other paper back to the student, and asked me to sit down next to her at her desk. “Randy, Randy, Randy,” she said. That A+ that he received was the absolute best he could do. Your work was good, but you are a lazy writer. You still have more in you that needs to come out. When you get there, you will get your A+.
She was right. School was always pretty easy for me, and although I thought I had put all my effort in the research paper, I knew I could have done more. She was not putting me down; she was trying to get my maximum effort. It took a few more papers, but I finally got the A+ that I wanted so badly.
After graduation, I lost touch with her for a while, but I understand that she kept us this same effort with all the students that came after me. When I returned to town after starting me career, Honie Lou became not only a client, but a close personal friend. I missed it when she moved away to Arkansas. We would write letters back forth to each other. Very often, she would answer my letters with my own letter included – with comments and corrections. Always a teacher.
You don’t have to be in a teacher’s classroom to be affected. Father Martin Elsner, a Jesuit priest, taught at our high school after the Jesuit high school in town closed. His sweet and gentle spirit touched us all. Jan Herron, who did just about everything at the school, was a dynamo of action then, and continues to influence students today. They both helped form my life.
On this morning’s news I heard that Governor Abbott is touting a plan to put the best teachers on a path to making a six figure salary. I hope that this is not an empty promise. Teachers deserve it. As the memes out there say – if you can read this, thank a teacher.