Op-ed column: Inept or not, English teachers inspired us to read and write

even incompetent teachers can educate — by default. I owe a great deal to my high-school English tea

School days are soon upon us, and with them the return of controversies: the criticism of teachers in print and on the airwaves. Doubt is cast about their competence, their devotion to our children, their intelligence, but above all, their ability to teach.

Not everyone who’s competent in a subject is able to teach. Now combine that possibility with a room full of restless kids who’d rather be home playing video games, who’d rather be out in a playground skinning their knees, falling off climbing bars, and generally trying to do injury to themselves. Among other vexations, you have a recipe for classroom chaos.

Most teachers perform valiantly against these odds, and the children do get educated. But some do fall down, not necessarily from neglect of duty. Sometimes those kids, hyped on the instant gratification received from their electronics, have no patience with the slow process of acquiring skills and knowledge. And sometimes, bottom line, the teachers don’t fulfill the job.

Still learned something

But even incompetent teachers can educate — by default. I owe a great deal to my high-school English teachers, incompetent as they were and unrepentant to the end.

To Miss Nice, I owe my ability to reel off a little Kipling after 40 years, and I write because of Miss Hartzell.

Miss Nice was not nice. She was a smart-dressing, Chesterfield-inhaling brunette with deep red fingernails and a very short temper. Her search for meaning in the “Odyssey” was confined to the terse footnotes in the 19th century translation we were using in 1945. Burrowing through the barbed wire of an arcane language, we lay siege to Homer.

While Miss Nice surveyed her fingernails, we mouthed the words. As far as our comprehension went, we could have been reading Sanskrit. As Miss Nice corrected our essays in class, we wrote fresh ones about Athena and Aphrodite, some foreign folks who lived in Greece a long time ago.

Homer deemed conquered, we gathered the strength to assault Kipling. Hours upon hours of class were dedicated to each of us rising to say: “East is east and west is west/And the twain shall never meet . . .” That truism still rings in my head at odd moments like the old Blue Bonnet margarine commercial.

My increasing conviction that novels and poetry had a purpose beyond paralyzing us kids with boredom for 45-minute intervals, five times a week, I owe to Miss Nice. But I owe my quick draw with words to Miss Hartzell.

Miss Hartzell tied her hair in a bun, stuck her feet in sensible shoes, and the rest of herself into nondescript skirts and prim blouses. She was old — somewhere between 40 and 60, we kids couldn’t tell — and it didn’t matter. Miss Nice could — and did — rip the shirt from your back if you crossed her, but Miss Hartzell kept her own counsel. On the day Bob Nielson deposited two beers and a cherry from the Tom Collins he’d slugged down to celebrate Moving Up Day at her feet, she grunted a curt command and moved the class to another room.

Quiet but insistent

Miss Hartzell remained remote and nearly inaccessible throughout the school year. Any light which may have filtered down upon us from her accumulated wisdom was impeded by her disinclination for speaking. She was incapable of any but the briefest of sentences, emitted in low growls, often punctuated with blows from her ruler. After several short bursts of necessary communication, usually the next week’s reading and writing assignments, she’d set the class a task and subside behind her desk, eyes lowered. There was a persistent rumor that she was sleeping.

While she snoozed, we took turns standing and importuning memory: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day . . .” Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. To this day that quotation summons not the eloquence of Shakespeare nor Faulkner’s great novel, but gray afternoons saturated in limitless tedium.

Shakespeare as exhausted as we, Miss Hartzell switched to her second-favorite mode of passing the hours: impromptu essays. Entering class on those days, we’d find a list of titles on the board: Twilight, Woodsmoke, Liberty, Freedom, Equality, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

We wrote without foreplay, composing three-pagers on topics of little interest about which we knew little. The notion that the muse must first visit you before creation was blasted early. You wrote for Miss Hartzell whether you were delirious with joy or bereft of all inspiration, 500 words lacking motivation — or research — or knowledge. At a loss for an opening, I once turned a serious topic — all Miss Hartzell’s topics were serious — into mild satire. This was not appreciated. Nevertheless, I must read it aloud to the class while she rested.

But failed literary education or no, I owe the woman my working life. Under her aegis, I learned to write, whenever or wherever, elated or dejected, on fire or contemplating suicide. Choose a title from the list, take out three sheets of paper. I can riff on the telephone book if I have to.

Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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