Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

11 thoughts on “Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

  1. Like Derrick, I am glad you perservered and made your way through the often strange and unpredictable halls of academe. To tell the truth, I would have never made it with such a teacher. My good fortune is that I never had to. Incredible memoir, Cynthia.

    1. Paul, comments from you are very appreciated. Thank you for taking the time.

      My life has been a bit rough, but many have had hard times and thrived even more than have I… I often muse over how to effectively write of much of it (the deep therapy is done!) and if it would be useful to do so for readers out there or just self-indulgent (something I am so loathe to have happen). There were many other experiences both intense and impacting that taught me harsh lessons and tried my fortitude and faith. and yet there has always a light at the end of the tunnel, Humans are so adaptable and strong. But I might need to use a pen name. 🙂

      I did find it hard to cope with Mrs. X. and luckily she never dampened my love of writing. I well recall in college, however, being told often my writing was “stilted, formal, full of verbiage” and to loosen up and pare down…Such needed constructive criticism! Still working on simplifying. Too many adverbs, quite meandering at times. Onward!

      Best to you and yours, Paul.

  2. You soar once again when writing of your life and it’s challenges so beautifully and artfully. You keep me hooked in with your words, your feelings, your emoti9ns. Thank you — you definitely have a gift.

    1. Such generous words from you, thank you, Judy. I am still working at writing and memoir was smething I never expected to write, not once, But WordPress has provided a platform for sharing more openly and fearlessly. I don’t always write about my more serious personal matters (though my heart impulse is to reach out, let others know they are not alone with struggles and that transformation and joy can/do happen every day), but I do write abut what fascinates, challenges, delights and enriches me! Blessings on you.

    1. Thanks much, Derrick–so many survivors do, thankfully. Decades later I found I finally wrote “out loud” of the challenges involved so others know they are not alone and I verbally and more clearly clarify my own truth. Perhaps all writers find this happening, in all the ways different genres are written. We have the tool of language and what a gift to be given it as human beings! And teachers/mentors? I have had so many, still find them in my life. It all has worked together for good in the end. 🙂

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