Thank You, Teachers!
The kids are back in school now, and last fall was my 50th class reunion, so I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers. They seem to be getting a bad rap these days; they’re underpaid, and increasingly being evaluated not by how much their students are learning, but how those students score in a continuous stream of standardized tests — the greatest scam ever perpetrated on a noble profession. Ideologues on the Right, like NJ Governor Chris Christie, have referred to them as union thugs (other union thugs are the people who risk their lives keeping us safe from criminals, or pulling us out of burning buildings). But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to pay tribute to those people who not only taught me, but made me want to learn more. If you were lucky you had a teacher, or maybe a few, who really got you excited about knowledge, or a certain subject. I had more than my share, and I’d like to thank them all. I wasn’t a great student, about B-, I guess. I hardly ever took home school work, and didn’t study hard enough for tests and all that, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention.
When I was in middle school (we called it junior high then), some grammar teacher had us slaving over this little book about roots of words, mostly Latin or Greek. We all hated that book, it was so boring. I can’t tell you how many times in the intervening years that I’ve seen a word I wasn’t familiar with, but could break it down to its roots, and often figure it out. In fact it happened again while I was writing this. Some words have opposite meanings, like sanction, which can either be official permission or official punishment. I just learned that the term for that is ‘antilogy.’ I saw the word and thought, of course! Both roots are Greek; ‘anti,’ against or opposite, and ‘logy,’ from ‘logos,’ word. So I want to thank that teacher, and I sure wish I could find that book again.
Thank you Ben Tryon, one of our math teachers, for teaching me plane geometry. It’s the first math class I ever excelled in, partly because of the way he explained things. He also said something once that I’ll never forget: “He who knows how may get the job, but he who knows why will be the boss.” I’ve always wanted to know the why of things, and more than once it’s gotten me in trouble with a boss who didn’t feel the need to explain why something had to be done in such and such a way. I guess I’ve always been a “whys” guy.
Thank you Larry Farrell, music and drama, for the beginning of my passion for music. I was in the school choir, and had a few lines in a play. He wrote in my high school yearbook: “To a fine basso profundo,” which I really wasn’t. He was being generous, as always.
Thank you Mrs. Shirley, for being the best looking woman any of us boys had ever seen outside the movies. She was tall, blond, beautiful, and wore high heels and nylon stockings. I think about her every time I hear Van Halen’s song “Hot for Teacher,” and we boys couldn’t wait to get to her class towards the end of the day. I honest to God don’t remember what the class was, English, I think. So I’m going to thank her for teaching me the proper usage of the apostrophe, a few simple rules that I see violated nearly every day. Last fall I was having lunch with Kathy, one of my classmates who lives out here, and I told her about Mrs. Shirley and how the boys felt. She surprised me by saying all the girls were crazy about her, too. She had such style and grace, was smart and sophisticated. They all wanted to be like her when they grew up.
Thank you especially, William Fassbender, our science teacher. With coke-bottle glasses and flattop, he looked pretty nerd, but man, was he enthusiastic about science! It was contagious, and I’ve been a science guy all my life. At an all-school reunion in 1989, I shook his hand and thanked him, as did my good friend Joe, who had gone on to be a neurosurgeon.
He wasn’t my favorite, though. That would be Byron Olson, who taught literature. We all loved him, he was so knowledgeable and absolutely hilarious. He was the first eccentric many of us had seen, but still a great teacher. One day he was sitting behind his desk, talking to us. A fly had been buzzing around his head, and at one point he instantly reached out and grabbed it right out of the air, without missing a beat. Wow — he wasn’t just a good teacher, he was a zen master! Thank you, Mr. Olson, for being who you were.
Thank you Del Barber, my track coach. If I’d have listened to him, I would have won that State Championship mile run, instead of finishing half a stride behind. He told me I lost that race because I didn’t give everything I had, and he was right.
My freshman year in college I particularly remember a strange coincidence, or maybe it was some kind of weird symmetry. My history teacher was Mr. Drache, and during WWII he was a bombardier in the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. My German teacher was Mr. Benzel, who had been in Dresden during that bombing. As far as I know, they were on cordial terms, but I’ve always thought the synchronicity a little eerie.
Talk about eccentrics, and that was Dr. Berkeley Peabody, my Greek professor. Short, stocky, he always looked disheveled, and could easily have been the prototype for Peter Falk’s TV character, Columbo. He only had two suits that I ever saw, a rumpled olive green one, and a rumpled brown one. He would do things like walk into the classroom and throw himself up on his desk, propping his head up on one elbow, and hold forth. He’s now Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York in Albany, and the author of several books. Thank you Mr. Olson and Dr. Peabody, for letting me know it’s alright to be yourself no matter what others may think. It’s a valuable lesson.
I took a few years sabbatical, courtesy of the U.S. Army, then finished my last year or so at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Oh, and thank you, U.S. Army and American taxpayers, for the GI Bill that enabled me to do so.
Thank you Dr. Charles Teske, and his college roommate and guest lecturer from Oberlin College, Walter Anschaffenberg, for introducing me to Wagner’s music. It was a class on the historical and mythological roots of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I had never cared for opera; I was interested because I knew Wagner drew on the same ancient Norse myths that J.R.R. Tolkien used in his own ring epic. That’s why I took the class; I was prepared to grit my teeth through the music. On the first day Walter played for us “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Gotterdammerung, and I went oh . . . my . . . God! It was so lush, celestial, richly textured. I got to attend three complete Ring cycles by the very talented Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera, and they were wonderful. Thanks, guys!
Thank you most of all, Dr. Gordon Beck. I took his class, Medieval and Renaissance Art and History. It was the spring quarter preparatory class for the summer quarter trip to France and Italy, to experience the real thing. I hadn’t planned to go to Europe, as the GI Bill and my part time job left me a bit short, but Gordon procured for me a grant that made the difference. Heck, for all I know, he paid for it himself. That trip is the most important thing that has ever happened to me, and although it was 38 years ago, it’s all still crystal clear. It would have never happened without Gordon’s help and encouragement. He knew I would get more out of it than a lot of the younger students. I can never thank him enough, and sadly, we lost him a few years ago.
I did a little teaching of my own, adult evening education, they called it. I taught astronomy and calligraphy, both through my city’s Community Development program, and a local college. It’s been said that with teachers, you never know where their influence will end. My classes each had from 10-15 students, and I always hoped that in each one I would inspire at least one student to pursue the matter further. I loved teaching, and I’ve always liked working a crowd. Once I gave an astronomy presentation at a high school. Earlier, I’d scraped some ice from inside the freezer and mixed some dirt and gravel with it, molding it into a ball, then kept it in a soup thermos. At the presentation, I was explaining comets, and said, “I just happened to bring a comet with me tonight,” and pulled out this dirty snowball and held it out for them to see. One girl raised her hand and asked, “Where did you get that?” I wish I could do that presentation again. I would have gotten some dry ice and pulled it out with tongs, and walked it around so they could see the comet’s “tail.” That would have really blown their young minds.
I have to also acknowledge Pastor James Thvedt, of the Lutheran church I attended during high school. At a point where I needed it, my friend Joe got me to try it, and I stayed. After I graduated I went off to a Lutheran college with the intention of becoming a minister myself. Pastor Thvedt was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met; kind, a positive attitude, open-minded, very bright, and funny, too. The Christianity didn’t take, but his spirituality opened a window I never knew was there. I can’t thank him or Joe enough.
As I wrote this, I kind of winced every time I used a teacher’s full name, because I still want to refer to them as Mr. Olson, Mrs. Shook, Dr. Beck, and so on. I have that much respect and admiration for them. If it were up to me, the best teachers would be paid like LeBron James or Peyton Manning, and what they do is a lot more important. Teachers spend more time with our kids than we do. They stay after school to help students who need a little extra. They stay up late at home, on their own time, grading papers. They buy school supplies with their own money, because education budgets have been slashed. Yes, there’s probably corruption in teachers’ unions, as there is in every large organization. Yes, the unions make it difficult to get rid of the really bad teachers, and they need to be gotten rid of. All that said, I’m nearly 70 years old, and because of these teachers I’m still fired up and ready to go, as President Obama likes to say. Because of them, I know how to spell oligarch. I know Columbia is the river and Colombia the country. Because of them I learned to think critically. So I don’t want to hear anyone bad-mouthing teachers, or they’re going to have to answer to me. And believe me, they’re not going to like the answer.