How I Became an Unfair Teacher

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

I was invited to my first high school reunion this past December and I also recently received my first request for donations from the school’s alumni association (as if I have the money for that, ha!). These two events started the process in my head of sloughing through my massive memory bank of those years in my life, and I’ve come up with two conclusions so far: it was awesome, but it also sucked beyond belief. While I had a great social life, was involved in activities that continue to hold my interest to this day, and had some truly inspiring teachers along the way, I also had my fair share of rotten experiences.

I was always an advocate against ageism from a very early age, even before I knew what it was. My parents raised me more or less as an adult: I was allowed to drink alcohol at family dinners, I was socialized early on with “adults” and could hold my own in “grown-up” conversations, I was allowed to fashion myself with clothes and crazy hair colors, and my parents backed me up whenever I got in “trouble” at school. This “trouble” was often a result of my rebellions against the established pecking order of “teachers/administrators know best.”

This tendency to resist authority figures usually ended in two ways:

1. They would give up and let me do what I want (which resulted in stuff like “science fair” projects on which brand of nail polish was more durable and how different heights of high heels affected walking rates)

Or,
2. They would cite an arbitrary rule that I was violating and punish me (one memorable instance being a ban in 6th grade on wearing costumes to school on Halloween day; instead of wearing “costumes,” my friend and I dressed up as Goths (a valid fashion trend at the time) and were promptly assigned pumpkin-carving duty for the 3rd graders and banned from attending the “Fall Dance” (we continued to protest by dressing as Goths at school for the next two weeks))

I continued this push against authority figures throughout my high school career and thus many of my memories from that time are about how these teachers and administrators made me feel. In one instance, I remember arguing with my 7th grade science teacher about whether clockwise is left to right and counterclockwise is right to left, or whether it depended on where you start. I argued that if you start at the bottom of a clock and go in a clockwise direction, you are going right to left. But if you start at the top of a clock and go in a clockwise direction, you go left to right. He refused to accept what I said as valid and continued on with his lesson. I remember feeling irate and disrespected, to the point of having to scream into my sweatshirt to release the anger.

A more psychologically damaging instance involved my P.E. teacher in 10th grade. I remember him being a retired military general or something of the sort, and, as a P.E. teacher, he continued his relationship with the military by offering community service hours to military personnel in exchange for helping with his classes for a day. So one day, we arrive for P.E. and he tells us that we will be playing a game with active military members for our daily activity. Now, at this point in time, I was an active member of a school club called S.A.W. (Students Against War). We were in the middle of the Iraq War and I had been developing an increasing distaste for all things military. So, to make a point, I calmly told the teacher that I would not be participating in the activity that involved the military personnel. He sneered at me and walked away. When the class had gotten to the field, I walked over to the side and sat down.

I saw the P.E. teacher say something to the military personnel and point over to me, and within minutes one of them walked over to me to ask why I was not participating. I told her that I did not believe in the military (probably a bad choice of words on my part) and she immediately launched into a yelled (yes, yelled) lecture about how the military is not make-believe and that there are people (her friends!) who are dying out there. I told her that, yes, I understood that the military was not make-believe and that I simply had no desire to participate with them in the activity. She continued to scream at me for another five minutes, during which the group of students that had followed my protest and sat on the edge of the field with me decided that it wasn’t worth the fight and went to participate in the activity.

At some point, the screaming turned into a lecture about physical activity. She was accusing me of being against physical activity and P.E. in general when my teacher walked over and joined her in the verbal assault. They both continued to yell at me even after I offered to take part in another P.E. class for the day that didn’t involved military personnel. I just sat there, stunned by the sheer amount of volume and vitrol that was being thrown my way. Eventually they realized that they weren’t getting anywhere and granted my request to join a different P.E. class. So I walked over to another teacher, asked if I could join their class, and played baseball for the rest of the period.

That day after school, I went home and told my parents the entire story and they offered their support if/when I decided to take action. I tried to get various teachers to help back my complaint to the principal, but none offered assistance and the issue eventually faded into the background of my memories.

Another example that had lasting effects on both myself and my friendships at the time was my 12th grade English teacher. Her and I had had numerous arguments and tensions throughout the year, all stemming from the fact that she refused to take my opposing opinions as valid. My opinions were often creatively “outside the box,” such as a statement I made once about chemistry being an art. I had argued that the mixing of chemicals could be considered just as artful as the mixing of paint or words. She laughed at me.

The most notable example of her blatant disrespect, however, happened toward the end of the year, when we were both ready to get out of each others’ hair. We had been studying the book Hamlet, which was a personal favorite of hers (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she wrote her dissertation on it or something). The assignment that she had given us was to write a psychological evaluation of the character Hamlet, as revealed in his four soliloquies. She expressly instructed us to forget the rest of the play and just focus on the soliloquies. So I sat down one night and wrote out an evaluation in the voice of a stuck-up psychologist who insisted that “Sir Hamlet” was stuck in adolescence.

When we got to class, she instructed us to group into fours and read each others’ papers. We were then to choose the best one from the group and then read it to the class. My group chose my paper and, while I was reading it out loud, the teacher happened to be behind me. As I read, I kept noticing expressions of pain, disbelief, and confusion running over the faces of the others in my group so by the time I was done I knew I was in for something.

She immediately launched into an attack of my paper; first citing the use of “Sir Hamlet” and then the use of “adolescent.” I hadn’t known this at the time, but “Sir” could only be used by someone who is socially above the person they are calling sir. Hence, Sir Hamlet was inappropriate because a psychologist would not be socially above a prince. My response was that the psychologist was haughty and considered himself above Hamlet, which she laughed at and disregarded.

The use of “adolescent” was a much bigger issue. My paper implied that Hamlet was still an adolescent in age, since I had not clarified that his actions and mindset were adolescent. She basically told me that I was wrong, that the play lists Hamlet’s age, and implied that I hadn’t read the play at all. I left class more irate than I’d ever been at school and launched into a tirade once I met my friends for lunch.

It turns out the play did in fact list Hamlet’s age in a monologue near the end of the play, which I only found out after screaming at my best friend who knew her Shakespeare well (that years-long relationship unfortunately ended soon after that episode). I then realized, however, that Hamlet’s age was not mentioned in the four soliloquies that the teacher had expressly instructed us to use exclusively when writing our papers.

I went to talk to her a few days later during lunch and said, “you instructed us to only use the four soliloquies, yes?” And she said, yes, she did. But the fact that Hamlet’s age was never mentioned in the soliloquies and thus we could arguably apply artistic license when extrapolating for the paper did not faze her. She simply interrupted me and said, “you may leave now.”

I later learned from a friend that she was using my paper as an example to other classes of an ignorant student who hadn’t read the play and thinks that Hamlet is an adolescent in age. She threatened that she had a way to check the paper against internet databases for plagiarism. In other words, she didn’t accuse me of plagiarism to my face but instead used my paper as an example of plagiarism to other students.

I told my parents the story and again they offered their support, my dad having actually witnessed me writing the paper itself. So I went to my school guidance counselor the next day and told her what I knew. She said there wasn’t much we could do until the teacher formally accused me of plagiarism. So we waited.

Nothing happened and the day came when she passed back the graded papers to the class. The moment came when she laid the paper face down on my desk and I held my breath as I turned it over. “98” is all it said. A red-inked 98 at the top of my paper. No grammar corrections, no spelling mistakes, no suggestions for further edits. Just a big, red 98.

I was stunned. I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or upset. I mean, hey! A 98! But had I earned it? Was my paper worthy of that grade? I don’t think it was. What kind of weird, twisted, psychological punishment was this??

I was encouraged by friends to just accept it and move on, they even implied that I was ridiculous to keep picking fights with her in the first place. I did move on and graduate and all that, but the psychological impressions exist to this day. I’ve returned to those memories every now and then over the years, and I’ve been tempted to write to the teachers who had damaging effects on my psyche to let them know that it wasn’t just “teenage hormones” that drove me to rebel. And that my opposing thoughts and opinions during that time period deserved the same amount of respect and attention as their ideas and teachings. But would it be worth it?

Would they actually listen to what I say now when they didn’t listen then? Does a handful of years in the “real world” validate my opinions and thoughts in their eyes? I doubt it.

Ageism still plagues me to this day, although I now have a less explosive and irate response to it. I experience it in stores, in bars, in the work place, and elsewhere. It occurs especially in the work place and in particular when I am applying for jobs. For instance, every time I work my part-time job in a gift shop, the volunteers and other workers always assume that I’m a volunteer. They often don’t heed my instructions for various tasks until after they realize that I’m a paid employee.

I’m glad that the above article comes from the perspective of a teacher. They often don’t realize how much of a profound, long-lasting difference their words and actions can have on a student’s life. Because of teachers I now hate the play Hamlet, and am wary of gym teachers and military personnel. But I also love art, history, and Brahms. How did teachers affect your life?

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by | June 2, 2014 · 9:38 pm

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