While preparing for a Freshman English class I’m planning to tutor next school year, I was inevitably flooded with memories of my own High School experiences. I went to a public school, and I don’t believe I learned much of anything there. The little Chemistry I remember was taught to me by my Dad as he helped me with my homework. I didn’t retain any Algebra at all. Most of the history, science, and geography I learned was from books I read on my own. (I spent one whole summer devouring the encyclopedia.) Most of the teachers in my high school were largely ineffectual; but for the most part it was not their fault. The classes were overcrowded and the students, in general, uninterested in learning. These were children of the disillusioned ’70s: suspicious and disdainful of authority, undisciplined and ill-behaved. Many a class-period was spent with the teacher giving us a study hour while attempting to console a student who refused to leave the ladies’ room or trying to referee a fight between overly-aggressive adolescent boys filled with more angst than they knew what to do with. Looking back with the experience of an educator, I now also realize that these teachers were using out-dated, poorly written textbooks and had apparently little guidance in choosing their materials. One teacher with whom I was particularly disgusted was my Junior English instructor, who had us read juvenile Harlequin Romance novels for our literature course; her reasoning was that we would actually read them, as opposed to the classics we obviously would not read. I refused to read the trash she offered, preferring to spend my time reading Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Frost; my parents couldn’t understand why I was doing so poorly in her class even though I’d always made exemplary grades in English.
That was my only act of open rebellion in high school, though. In general, I was a good student, self-motivated and conscientious. I was too religious to misbehave and too timid to call attention to myself in any way. I preferred to edge my way along the fringes of high school life, avoiding extracurricular activities both school-sponsored and otherwise. I had my own little circle of good friends, other quiet types who understood each other, and actively avoided everyone else. This was the way I worked best, and the most astute teachers understood that and didn’t push. The teachers I resented most were the ones who would not respect my need to be left alone. The ones who stood out to me as helpful and caring were the ones who let me be myself in my own way.
One teacher stands out in my memory as the best I ever had. Her name was Mrs. Vickie Flowers, and she taught my Freshmen English class. She actually tried to teach us important things: the history of the English language, composition skills, classical literature such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain. Just as vital, she took an active interest in each of her students as individuals. At least, I know she took an interest in me. She never terrorized me with too much attention, which she must have known would have driven me to avoid her. She only spoke to me in passing, just often enough to let me know she cared but not often enough to draw unwanted attention to me. She mostly asked me what I was reading that week, apparently having noticed that I seemed to plow though a book a week. I was at that time, at the the ignorant age of 14, reading any work of fiction I could get my hands on, good or bad. If I was reading a well-written work, she would smile and say, “You must be enjoying that.” If I was reading something less worthy of my time, she would quietly suggest a different book she thought I might like. In this way, she steered me toward authors that have become life-long friends, like J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters. When it came time to write our term papers, when the other students were researching the lives of pop stars and athletes, she handed me a book by Mario Pei and suggested I might like to write about the etymology of the English language. And as she predicted, I ate it up; it was the beginning a lifetime passion for the subject. You see, she had noticed that I loved to write as well as read and wanted to encourage a love that was already present.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: Mrs. Flowers saw me; she saw me for who I was and worked with me as an individual. She never pushed; but she never neglected either. She made a life-long impression on me by letting me be myself and encouraging me along the path I was already on, steering me without ever seeming to by astutely discerning what would capture my interest. I want to be a teacher like that. I really hope I can live up to Mrs. Flowers’ example.