by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – You need a couple of onions. So you pick up the pencil you keep beside the grocery shopping list on the kitchen counter and jot “onions” beside the other items on the list and return to slicing the onion in front of you.
Your cell phone is flashing a message at you– “Incoming mail.” You click on Inbox, check on your mail, decide what to answer when, if at all, and stick your phone into your pocket.
Neither of these actions caused you even a casual bit of wonder that you could do it. But I often see before me in imagination the bumper sticker, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” The unconscious transference of meaningless symbols into casual understanding is almost magical. Your teacher once held each letter of the alphabet up beside her shoulder while you and your classmates raced to say it and use it in a word. If you don’t think that’s a tough job, you need to try it. She was watching each kid to see who was going to need some extra help from the aide.
I use “she” reflexively when referring to teachers because all of mine were women until I got to prep school. A recently deceased friend of mine, a history professor at North Carolina, posited that one reason for the obviously superior education of the Kennedys and their contemporaries was that they were taught by the last generation of women who, no matter how brilliant or accomplished they might be, had no career path open to them but the public and private schools.
I daresay each of them had favorite teachers all through their school years. Mine stand out as clearly as Orion on an autumn night. Mrs. Sandwick ruled our sixth-grade roost. She was an icy martinet whose glance, like that of the medusa, could turn us to stone. She insisted upon proper penmanship, and to ensure that we wrote with a properly slanting hand, made each of us a pattern to place under our writing – in those days before copiers, made each of us one by hand, with a ruler. But she loved me, I knew. She stacked the flashcard deck so that I always got 7×8, the one she knew I didn’t know; and when we left her domain, she gave me a copy of “Pickwick Papers.”
Ida May Quain filled our consciousness at the end of middle school. Elderly, gray, with a heavy limp and a rapier wit, she had a way of turning sideways in her desk chair and pinioning the object of her attention. I was then, as always, a bit chatty in class. Sliding her gold-rimmed spectacles down her nose and looking straight at me between the heads of Albert Kallfelz and Norma Voracio, she announced with obvious delight, “Lambie, it’s open, and it’s running.” That did it for a day.
Sophomore year in secondary school saw the last, regrettably, of the unforgettable ones. Thomas A. (TD) Donovan had no doubts about what he wanted, and when. His rules were immutable; to this day I can’t use “one” as a personal pronoun. A bit of a cartoonist, he occasionally illustrated his comments on my work with a sketch of a fly buzzing above a heap of barnyard manure. I’m pretty certain that on my first day of teaching, 12 years later, I channeled all three of those immortals, and they never let me down.
This week, 60 years later, hundreds of young neophytes are facing their first classes. I’m not sure I could do what they’re about to. Could you? The kids haven’t changed, essentially, in spite of the scorn and criticism on the Internet; we old folks haven’t changed; we still moan like ancient Greek philosophers about the decline in the quality of our youth. What’s changed is the playing field. The principal, once a treasured adviser and a bulwark between the skepticism of conservative school boards – who in our day at least had no political agenda. The notion, for example, that any young American can enter responsible adulthood without reading and studying “Huckleberry Finn” is utterly absurd. The cry, “But the language!” is about as disingenuous as, “But her emails!” It’s the way we were back then; and by the feel of things, may be the way we’re headed again.
The interest we Americans express in our public education is belied by the way we’ve always treated our teachers. A 1914 teacher’s contract forbids, among other things: marrying, “keeping company” with men, wearing fewer than two petticoats, and being not at home between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. In the 1800s, Alexis de Toqueville noted our strong vein of anti-elitism; the novelist Isaac Asimov addresses it in his notes about America. So we pay our educators peanuts, ride herd on their political proclivities, and force them to teach to some really ignorant standardized tests. Only a truly desperate person would take a job under such circumstances.
The preface to “Cruden’s Concordance” might help: “The author Alexander Cruden, was born in 1701 at Aberdeen…He was intended for the Presbyterian ministry, but ill-health, which for a time affected his mind, led him to take up teaching at the age of twenty-one.