A Well-Learned Lesson

Last week I posted a letter I would have liked to have sent to my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Zunker.  We all have teachers we loved and whose memory and lessons were sweetly remembered.  Unfortunately, most of us have also had teachers we would rather forget but can’t because their impact is also indelibly entered into our minds.  As tomorrow is the first day of school for nearly every school child who hasn’t already started, I post the following letter in hopes that teachers will remember that they don’t teach a subject; they teach children and their lessons last long after the teaching is done.

Letter to My High School Math Teacher

Dear Mr. Whittaker,

As I was looking at an old high school yearbook and came across your picture, it occurred to me that I never thanked you for all the lessons you taught me.  I don’t think you will remember me, but I will never forget you.  I remember how you would laugh at me if I made an attempt at an answer and it was wrong.  I know you were trying to teach me never to raise my hand unless I was sure I was right or unless I enjoyed being humiliated.  I remember the angry red marks you would plaster all over my math papers, letting me know that not only was I wrong, but I didn’t have even one spark of mathematical intelligence to help me figure out the correct answer.  I learned that being on the right track is meaningless, so why even try.

I will never forget that day when you looked right at me and said, in front of the whole class, “There is a giraffe at the carnival in the A&P parking lot whose name is also Susie, and she has a very long neck, too.”  I hope you appreciated how much laughter I received for being the butt of your joke, because it taught me to be self-conscious about my looks.  I wore a lot of scarves that year.  My father came and talked to you after the Susie Giraffe incident and told you that you were my favorite teacher.  I hate to tell you that he was lying, but he did it to make you stop picking on me.  Since it worked for a little while, it taught me that some people can get good results through deception.  I never learned that lesson, however, because I always felt the truth was important, no matter what it cost you, and I resented my father for letting you think I admired you.

So, except for that last lesson, I think you did a pretty good job of teaching me to feel anxious, stupid, and ugly.  Oh, and one last lesson.  You taught me to hate math.  I learned that one really well.

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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3 Responses to A Well-Learned Lesson

  1. Pamela Johnson says:

    I think your father was being damn smart here. He recognized that you were a child in a situation where it would have been difficult to defend yourself. Had he approached this teacher with anger, the result would have probably been more abuse after the memories of his visit faded. Most evil people like being worshiped and venerated. It composes them and gives them feelings of delight. I don’t see your father’s “lie” as being wrong. He knew exactly what was needed to protect his daughter. My estimation of him increases with each story I hear.

    • comingeast says:

      I have to disagree with you here, Cuz. There was a third option, the right one. My father didn’t have to lie or go into the parent-teacher conference angry. He could have sat down with the teacher and explained to him the effect his words had on his daughter and request that he refrain from further comments of that nature. If the teacher had any heart, he would have stopped. If he was totally heartless, then he would at least have been put on notice that my father was watching. The next step would have been a conference with the principal if the harassment had not stopped. By telling the teacher I said he was my favorite, my father made me feel that my feelings were unimportant.

      • Pamela Johnson says:

        I see your point here about your father making you feel your feelings were unimportant. Possibly he should have gone through all the steps you have suggested.

        What comes to mind is the position of the vulnerable in the care of the powerful. It could be a patient in a mental hospital. Or a convincted felon behind bars. Or a small child in a foster home. What happens to these people when no one is looking? I myself have had the regretful experience of leaving my own son in situations where there was abuse by people who were family/friends–people whose nature I did not fully know.

        I’m picturing the situation of your father going to the teacher and telling him the obvious–that his words are hurting you. The next day you are going to that class alone–into a very unequal playing field with a teacher who, by now, is very pissed off. You’re more vulnerable than ever. I think it is fair to say that the teacher has no heart or the meeting would not have taken place in the first place. My concern would be that, while he may change his strategy, his sadistic core will remain the same. So what will happen while we are waiting for his behavior to change? If he is cunning, his cruelty may worsen, but in a much more subtle form. It may be so subtle that you may find yourself unable to effectively articulate what is going on. In a conference with your father and the principal, you may well find that the principal will side with the teacher.

        I say this because I had a similar experience involving my mother when she was in a nursing home. There was one charge nurse who was abusive to her. This clearly was not her imagination, as all the CNA’s called her a bitch also. My mother was not well enough to come home from the nursing home and I had bad feelings about her welfare, after visits– leaving her “abandoned” in the facility. Having worked in many institutions, I was aware that these sadistic people are almost never fired. Their asset: they are good army sargents in running a unit where conditions are stressful and under-staffed. They keep things running. They keep everything under control. And the administrators are happy to have it that way.

        Patients and family were always invited to attend regular staff meetings held on each patient. In attendence were top administrators along with the heads of each department. When I had a chance to put my two-cents in, I calmly stated that I was pleased with my mother’s progress in physical and occupational therapy. But I also had to speak up about the “bitch.” I state calmly that there seemed to be a “personality clash” between a second shift nurse and my mother. Two of the higher-ups looked at each other and whispered. They knew exactly who I was talking about.. They said they would talk with the person about the “personality clash”and arrange for my mother to have a much-needed nap after her physical and occupational therapy classes. Mission accomplished. I would like to think that if I had stated the true nature of Mrs. B’s actions, that she would have been disciplined and forced to change. But I don’t feel that I miscalculated in that area. She remains employed at the nursing home a year later, reportedly unchanged in her ways.

        Probably your plan of dealing with your teacher as you suggested would have worked. I actually admire you for having the determination of being willing to go through all the confrontations that might have occurred with the teacher and principal.

        I realize my experience can’t be exactly compared to that which you had. But I speak her as a mother and daughter about my discomfort about leaving the vulnerable in unprotected settings.

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