Last weekend my wife and I were cleaning old crap out of the attic, including a box of my high school yearbooks, which brought back some memories. Of all the years I spent getting an education high school was four of them. It was a time when I learned biology, Latin, United States History, and World History, which was basically just a cursory glance of what was going on in western Europe while the United States has busy getting its states together. I barely made it through three years of math, which consisted of algebra, geometry, and algebra 2, which was just like algebra except we had to memorize the quadratic formula, the most useless piece of information I have ever been exposed to. I’m still not sure what the purpose of the quadratic formula is, and since it was something we just had to memorize without understanding it didn’t exactly foster any higher reasoning skills.
I had several teachers who, regardless of what subject they were supposed to be teaching, focused on critical thinking, which is much more important than just facts. It’s long been my belief that teaching students facts is secondary to teaching students how to think critically. After all the facts we need to know will inevitably change over our lifetimes, and the facts themselves may change. Thomas Edison gave potential job seekers a test that included such questions as, “What is the speed of sound?” Apparently he had a specific number in mind even though any intelligent person knows that the only logical answer is “It varies.” Similar answers would be appropriate for some of Mr. Edison’s other questions, like “What star is it that has been recently measured and found to be of enormous size?” and “What part of Germany do toys come from?” I consider myself lucky that I was never able to apply for a job at Menlo Park because I probably would have been rejected outright for answering the question “From where do we get dates?” with “Are you coming on to me?” but that’s another story.
I’d also have some mediocre teachers who mainly focused on teaching facts. And then there was Ms. Beatrice. It would be unfair to call Ms. Beatrice the worst teacher I had. She was just in the top two.
Ms. Beatrice was my English teacher my senior year. I was taking college level English because I was planning to study English in college. English had always been my favorite subject, probably because I entered high school already fluent in it, although I would also have to demonstrate an ability to diagram sentences, which is grammar’s equivalent of the quadratic formula. There were two teachers teaching the college level English class. One was a young teacher who’d started her career at another school teaching gifted students, and who brought the same high expectations with her. The other was Ms. Beatrice, which is who I was stuck with. She’d been teaching for several decades, but I got the impression that the experience hadn’t taught her anything. In fact I still suspect that she’d never been trained as a teacher at all. I think she’d been a student who’d been held back so many times they finally just quit trying to educate her and just started giving her a paycheck.
This was Ms. Beatrice’s first year teaching college level English, so she approached it the same way she did regular high school English. That is she taught us exactly the same things she was teaching her regular English classes. The only difference was we had to read Hamlet in addition to MacBeth, and also had to choose a third Shakespeare play. I picked The Tempest since I’d read it my freshman year and Ms. Beatrice didn’t know I was handing her the same essay on it I’d written three years earlier, even though it still had the original date and the original grade I’d gotten on it. My freshman year I got a B. Ms. Beatrice gave me an A minus. We also had to read a highly expurgated version of The Canterbury Tales written for fourth graders. Sometimes I think she thought we were fourth graders. That would explain the gold stars she stuck to any paper that got a good grade.
She also had us keep journals, which she would then read. Or rather skim. I had read an article about Picasso and how he became deeply embittered as a young man after the death of one of his sisters. He felt that God had betrayed him by not answering his prayers to save her. Ms. Beatrice wrote a big angry red note in the margin: “HOW DO YOU KNOW GOD HASN’T ANSWERED HIS PRAYERS?” It’s the sort of oblivious knee-jerk response you often find in internet message boards, but it was more than a little disturbing that an English teacher would flunk a reading comprehension test.
Her day-to-day teaching style was just as enlightened and challenging. One day we spent the entire class time reading a short story by Mark Twain and then answering questions about it. A few minutes before the bell rang she had us stop and told us she wanted to discuss something very important. She then went into a diatribe about a girl in the class who was wearing a miniskirt and how the boys all looked at her whenever she got up to sharpen her pencil. I’m not sure whether this was intended to humiliate the boys or the girl, who was wearing her cheerleading outfit because there was a pep rally that day. It certainly gave me something to think about until I left.
The thing about the college level English course is that we could qualify for college credit if we did well enough on a national level test given at the end of the year. About halfway through March Ms. Beatrice suddenly realized this when she found a copy of the test from an earlier year that she was supposed to use as a guide for developing her lesson plan, which she could have done if she hadn’t put it in the bottom drawer of her desk. In an effort to catch up she gave us a week to read a Tom Stoppard play, which none of us understood, including her, and had us each draw the name of an English author out of a hat. We were then supposed to read three or four novels by that author and then give a presentation to the class. I’m pretty sure that was the only time any of us learned anything, since most of us were better at her job than she was.
In the end I’d do well on the college level test because the best thing about Ms. Beatrice’s class is it left me so much free time to read on my own. She taught me a valuable lesson about education: the best way to learn is to do it yourself. A little more than a year later, with a year of college behind me, I dropped in to visit my high school, to say hello to some of my younger friends and see some of my old teachers. I stopped by Ms. Beatrice’s class. She didn’t recognize me, so I told her I’d been in her college English class the year before. She said, “I don’t remember teaching college English.” I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from saying, “Maybe that’s because you didn’t.”