Sunday, November 09, 2008


I'd have to say I was fortunate to go to school when and where I did. My schooling was the traditional readin', writin' and 'rithmatic. No New Math. The teachers could (and did) use the paddle. The "F" grade was handed out if the performance merited it, and it wasn't suppressed for any touchy feely reason. Parents actually supported the punishments the school handed out - the punishment at school was likely doubled when one got home.

But, what do I know. I'm bitter; clinging to my guns and religion like some slack jawed political Neanderthal. But, I do know the small class sizes and the dedication of those entrusted with my education gave me a heads up on the world. I'm also somewhat biased towards teachers as individuals (teacher's unions, not so much) because my mother was a lifelong teacher, and my Dad's parents taught as well. Teaching is in my blood, as it were. If I won the lottery, I'd probably go back to school so I could teach.

I owe a lot to my mother as far as my education is concerned. I about flunked the fourth grade because of my math scores. I was just not getting the multiplication tables memorized. She bought some flash cards and drilled me at home until my grades improved markedly. I now have a great appreciation for things math related. She also had a great love of literature and reading that I inherited.

But, I owe quite a debt to many of my instructors at the local school as well. Two in particular really stand out. I'm gonna name names here, because they deserve to be known - even if this place doesn't attract much traffic in the great scheme of things. Classroom discipline was a hallmark of both of these educators - they ran the show, and that was that.

First: Barbara Hamilton. Originally from Texas, and last I heard, where she now lives in retirement. So, she always had a bit of a twang to her voice. She was a fairly tall, slender, black haired iron willed woman who felt that drilling the nuances of the English language in us was her God given mission. And drill she did. I absolutely hated diagramming sentences. So, we did it all the freaking time. I did not like writing papers. We did that all the freaking time. I did go above and beyond her reading requirements, though. When we had to pick from a list of classics, my buddy Melvin picked Les Miserables just because it was the thickest book on the list. I read it because I wanted to. I think my choice was Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, which at the time I found insufferably dull. Ah well, I was also introduced to many other classics, such as The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas, pere), A Tale of Two Cities, and the works of Poe, among others. Mrs. H directed my reading towards the classics, which I've always appreciated. I found Chaucer difficult, and Shakespeare stuffy, but what the hell. I certainly learned something. I did ulitimately enjoy the history of the English language and how the building blocks had changed over the years, as well as the literature of the French.

And the endless drilling of sentence and paragraph construction paid off. When I got to college, the papers I wrote were head and shoulders above my classmates. I actually used paragraphs and sentences. The total drivel that some of my 'mates put out shocked me. I could crank out some real crap and still get an "A" because it just looked good in comparison. It is not lost on me how ironic it is that I'm actually writing something here on a semi-regular basis without the spurs of class requirements and grades. If Mrs. H ever reads this, I'm sure she'd feel the same.

So, thank you, Barbara Hamilton, for your unyeilding adherence to higher standards and continually pushing a lazy scholar to meet your requirements. Your efforts are still appreciated.

Next up is Max Davidson. He was small of stature, balding and thin, but his booming voice ruled his classroom. He used one of those old overhead rearward projectors that had scrolling clear plastic that could be reused. This way he could watch his charges while writing equations. For Max taught math. "Higher Math" as it was known back when dirt was new. Algebra. Geometry. Trig. He did not teach calculus, because he felt his time was better spent with the fundamentals. Calculus was for college. His mission was to drill us in the basics so we would be ready for calculus, physics, and whatever else awaited us in college. And, drill us in the basics he certainly did. Proofs. Over and Over. I hated proofs. Distributive. Communicative. Sets. Side, Angle, Side. Show Your Work.

He felt that is wasn't important exactly what steps we used to get the answer as long as we could back it up by showing proof and how we got there. I've done some tutoring over the years and most of the kid's teachers need their pencils snapped for the rigidity they expouse. Max's loose way of allowing us to find our own path allowed us to learn math in a goal realized fashion rather than "you must do it this way or it is wrong, wrong, wrong." I had to teach the kids to do it their way, and then "backtrack" to show it the way the teacher wanted. What a load of crap. If what they are doing is grounded in mathematic fundamentals, what difference does it make if they don't cross multiply fractions in this particular prescribed fashion? Particularly if they find the answer through established math principles?

Well, I'll get off the soapbox - I'm here to praise Max, not to bury him. No, wait, that's English lit, not math....

After I got to college, I once again appreciated the instruction I had been given. Calc and DiffeeQ just built on what I knew, thanks to Mr. D. Physics was fun - wow, we had labs! The fundamentals were drilled into my brain well enough that I can tutor kids just by looking over their assignments with maybe a bit of textbook refreshment. I've always had a love for "story problems."

Max "retired" to farming a long time ago. I've thanked both he and Mrs. H in person in years past, and I think it embarrassed them. They both sort of shrugged it off in a "Aww, shucks, it was nothing" kind of way. If this somehow finds either of you - well, thanks again. Y'all deserve it, and more.


Earl said...

yeah the writing still works, so when you start back on the physics I want to see those results!

Jerry in Texas said...

A year ago I looked up a grade school math teacher who I thought was a good teacher. He said something pretty profound:

"After years of teaching you remember the really good students...and the really bad ones. Everyone else is kind of a blur."

Frank W. James said...

Thank God for diagraming sentences. When I started writing professionally years ago I was so bad that the only way I could make sense out of WHAT I WROTE was to go back and diagram the really bad sentences. Save my butt many a time. Today students don't even know what a sentence diagram is.

Such is progress.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

DanielAjoy said...

I about flunked the fourth grade because of my math scores. I was just not getting the multiplication tables memorized. She bought some flash cards and drilled me at home until my grades improved markedly. I now have a great appreciation for things math related.

And now you can even find those multiplication flash cards for free.

Mo K said...

You never forget your best teachers. My 1st and 2nd grade English teacher (Mrs. Martin) called us her "beauties" and used Peanuts characters on the ditto papers (remember how they smelled when they were freshly printed?) which was very effective in grabbing our attention.