Saturday, February 06, 2010

In Teachers We Trust

There must have been something about me as a child which caused all the other kids to dislike me. In kindergarten and two different schools in my first year of regular school, I had no friends and was subjected to bullying. I think it was caused by combination of my foreign appearance coupled with my efforts to continue to have the world revolve around me as it did it home. By the time my ego was brought back to earth, the damage was done and I would rarely have friends until I started high school when I was 12. In those primary school years, one would think at the very least the teachers would be there to look out for me and protect me. I learned very early on that teachers are jaded and often fall well short of what we think we can expect from them.

One of the first inklings I had that teachers weren't perfect was when in Grade 1, I spotted a packet of cigarettes in Mrs Ritchie's handbag which she kept by the door of the classroom. I was stunned. How could someone who told me what to do, do anything so BAD? I whispered what I'd seen to a classmate and Mrs Ritchie overheard and declared that to be nonsense. Like clinging to the idea of Santa Claus, I tried to run with it, but I knew what I had seen. Any doubt was soon quelled when I walked into the staff room one day and found her with her legs kicked up onto a table and the room filled with smoke as she puffed away. The cigarette alone wasn't the shocker, but her whole demeanour. It was a break between the main show and the encore and she did not have to pander to me at this moment. I was a more than little disturbed by the personality shift.

This coupled with two years of teacher indifference to my plight as an unpopular student was nothing compared to Mrs Teserero. Indifference is one thing, but contempt is another. Mrs Teserero, an older Italian woman with nine children of her own, could not be bothered with me and my bullies and made that very clear to me. Never hesitating to yell at me in class for not having done my work, or smack me across the hands with a ruler for the rare infraction of talking (rare because I didn't really have anyone to talk TO) she was rarely nice to me. After a seating shuffle, she thought it wise to sit me in front of my my biggest bully, Paul Allatt. Paul mostly did his dirty work himself, but also employed the assistance of Julieanna who sat next to me. Eventually, after Paul was away for a few days, Julieanna and I became friends. But once Paul returned, the attacks continued from behind. One of the most popular methods was via sharpened pencil jabbed into my back and rear. On this one Monday in 1985, the Monday after the Australia Rules Football Grand Final at which the Essendon Bombers had won, Paul jabbed one time too many and brought me to hysterical tears. As I sat there sobbing, hoping Mrs Teserero would take pity on me and punish my attacker, it was I who met with the scolding.

"What's the matter with YOU?" she bellowed. I knew this didn't start out right.
"Paul keeps jabbing me with a grey lead," I sobbed.

At this point whatever was going on in class stopped in its tracks as I needed to be made an example of, apparently.

"Aw look, you're just ruining everything! I come here in a good mood in my Bombers colours and you have to cry and bring me down!"

In the middle of her tirade, to make matters worse, my sister who was two years younger came in with the basket of lunch orders, just to put the final sting in my humiliation.

It was already September by then (Australian school years being Jan/Feb - December) so I didn't have much time left with that horrible woman. Miserably, she became a Grade 4 teacher, so with only a one year break, I was back in her class for another year of disgust towards me. I don't remember much between her and I that year, but I do remember the final insult came when, for her birthday, after my mother suggested it, I agreed it might be a good idea to bring her a gift. Deep down I wanted to like her and for her to like me so I optimistically went up to her to hand her my present of a small potted plant. Unlike previous years, I was the only one to bring her something this year. When I gave it to her she sorta went "Oh...thanks." and almost seemed annoyed. From then on, the plant remained in the back of the classroom, unwatered until it died. Other plants in the room flourished.

Oh Mrs Teserero, how I don't miss you

The following year, Grade 5, found me in Mrs Burrows classroom. Mrs Burrows was a gruff, no nonsense sort of teacher and seemed to lack patience with everyone, not just me. I could live with that. Yet another teacher not at interested in encouraging young talent, during our weekly story writing time, I was regularly scolded for spending the whole time writing one story, rather than making it short, getting it corrected and then writing out my good copy. Sometimes we'd have kids' mum's come in to help with the correction and it was only then that I got some validation for my stories. I sure wasn't getting any from the bloody teacher who couldn't give a damn.

Another Mrs Burrows classic was after reading through the Ten Commandments one day, I went up to her and asked her, "What does 'adultery' mean?" I hadn't a clue, but was stunned by her abrupt answer, "It's when a man has sex with someone else's wife." She never looked up from her book and kept munching on her apple the entire time. I hadn't even officially been given "the talk" yet, though I'd figured a lot of it out, so I wasn't expecting an adult to be that up front with me, and I dare say it probably wasn't the preferred way to address that question at a Catholic school. I flipped between liking and hating Mrs Burrows throughout the year, but I lost all faith in her after I went to her after a really nasty attack that actually could have caused serious injury.

Anthony Norton hated me with great venom for absolutely no reason. He just about snarled any time he was forced to come near me. One day, as I sat minding my own business on a bench with some space behind me, Anthony came up from behind and brought a cricket bat crashing down onto my head. This was a far cry from a pencil jab. Naturally, I burst into tears and thought I might die. I walked down the hill sobbing and caught sight of Mrs Burrows. Through my pain, a small part of me delighted in the fact the I was going to get Anthony Norton in some serious trouble for this.

"Mrs Burrows," I simpered through a flurry of tears, "Anthony Norton hit me over the head with a cricket bat." My hand placed atop my head left no question as to the point of impact.
"Is there any blood?" she inquired.
"Then don't worry about it."

And then she turned and walked away.

Any eerie likeness to Mrs Burrows in both appearance and motto

As the end of another year drew to a close, things seemed to be looking up. I found out I was going to be in Mr Guinane's Grade 6 class and everyone knew that was the class to be in. He played guitar and was more like a friend to the kids, and lots of fun. Even if I didn't have any friends, I was happy about the prospect of fun for the next year. Certainly, the year was more fun that any previous year, but not quite the classroom party I had imagined it would be. One day, Mr G just flat out told us that this just wasn't a good year. Some years, the class is good, but it was just one of those things and we weren't one of "his" classes. Thanks, Mr G! At least he put up song lyrics for us to practice our writing on every day.

Mr Cash, the drama teacher (complete with "DRAMA" for his license plate) in high school was one of those teachers who just about fancied himself a student and liked to align himself with the popular kids. While I had friends throughout high school, I certainly wasn't popular, and while he was fun and nice enough, I was never one of his favourites. By now there were others treated with the contempt like I'd known from Teserero, so I was happy to sit in the middle and ride along and enjoy my drama classes. When it came to our final assessment which was thankfully done by outside assessors, we were to do a famous monologue from a provided list. As I loved Shakespeare, I chose a piece from 'Romeo & Juliet' and unfortunately for me, his princess in the class chose the same piece a week after I did. Once that was in place, I was fucked in terms of any encouragement as she was all he cared about. On the day of the assessment, he said he'd look over our pieces and try to provide some last minute advice. I rented a costume to enhance the role and I thought I did a decent job considering all the other work I was doing at the same time. When I was finished, I turned to him for feedback.

"Well...I like your costume."

I was completely crushed and from that moment set in a stomach ache of terror that haunted me for the rest of the day. Our class was broken up to see different assessors around the campus, but for my bad luck, I had to perform for the same assessors as Cash's princess, right after her. All these things made me feel so bad and when it came time to perform, I got through it, but it wasn't as strong as I'd practised and in my fright, I started to take the poison before saying Juliet's last line, "This do I drink to thee." All of this caused by Mr Cash's huge vouch of confidence. The results came in about a month later and I was shocked to see that my performance for which he only found my costume redeeming, was worth an B+ to unbiased assessors. I was sure I could have eked out an A if I wasn't made so nervous. Soon after I met a mutual friend of the princess and I and learned that she too received a B+. I soon learned I just missed out on getting into the drama course I wanted to take at university by about, oh...less than half a mark.

Steve Coogan aptly portraying a Drama teacher in Hamlet 2

My last tale is not of a teacher I had, but one that I knew. One would assume that someone would get into teaching because they are excited about shaping new minds and have a thirst for knowledge themselves. Obviously from the teachers I've talked about, there seems to be a point where such motivations wither and die like a penis confronted with Roseanne Barr. In the case of my former friend, even at 23, a fresh, young English and Drama teacher, it became apparent that an interest in learning may never have existed. As she was about to embark on her first trip to America, she asked me about tipping. I advised her that 15% is pretty standard but she freaked out at the idea of figuring that out. As both of us shared an ineptitude at Maths, I could see where she was coming from, but I was eager to explain how it wasn't that hard at all. I attempted to explain the "take 10% off the total, halve it, then add that to your 10%" method but didn't get very far.

"So you know 10%, right?"
"Nah!" she gleefully declared.
"Oh! Well, it's really easy..."
"I can't to maths!"
"Neither can I, but this isn't really 'doing maths' it's just moving the decimal..."
"Hahahahaa! I can't do maths!"

And there we have the passion for knowledge of a teacher.

All these experiences make me very scared to blindly stick my kids into the school system. There are so many awful and careless teachers out there that the idea of leaving my kids to any of them terrifies me. Still, we've all had some great teachers like Mrs Barnes whom I had in Year 9 and Mrs Olsen whom I had in Year 12 who, after so many years of experience and rotten kids, did not give up on me and got me my best results ever.

Some honourable mentions:
  • Mrs Hart asking us to close our eyes so she could get out of her slip on a hot day
  • Miss Matthews telling us that chocolate commercials were simulating oral sex
  • Mr Binyon giving us all the answers to the test we all failed so we could take it again (I failed it again)
  • Miss Dennehy lying about how she taught us times tables because she was scared of my mum when she confronted her about it.
  • Mrs Barker teaching us American history and saying "Ar-kansas" instead of "Arkan-saw"
Arguably one of the best teachers a young boy could have, Mary Kay Letourneau

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