Memoir; The Exceptional Effect of an Unconventional Teacher

 

I went to a small state college called, then, Arkansas Polytechnic College.  In the way that hospitals suddenly all upgraded to the status of medical centers, colleges seemed to overnight become universities.  My Alma Mater is now Arkansas Tech University. 

Sometime in the school year of 1959-60 I applied to Tech and was accepted.  I was astonished.  I didn’t know then that the school would take anyone, that the problem was staying in.

I had not been a good student, ever.  I may be an adult with ADD, but I may have just been bored.  My grade school report cards usually consisted of “S”s and “U”s and no “O”s.  For those of you who don’t remember those letters stood for Outstanding, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory.  For some categories that didn’t involve the “3Rs”, there was the category “needs improvement”.  I got some of those too. Those were usually accompanied by a comment like “runs with scissors”

.

 

My parents, both of whom excelled in school were distressed, and in a parent – teacher conference were told by my teacher, “Don’t worry about Rodney. When he needs it he’ll get it.”  That turned out to be true, but it almost didn’t happen.

I drifted through Junior High School only getting excited about Art, Drafting, and Science classes.  I think every kid drifts through Junior High (or Middle School as it is sometimes called) because they are so awash in hormones that they are completely distracted from thinking of anything else.

Science came in Ninth Grade, and I loved it. There was just one problem, I wasn’t good with numbers.  Arithmetic had always been a challenge, and because mathematics usually involved numbers everything except geometry came with difficulty.

Going into tenth grade I had a 1.5 grade average on a 4.0 system.  That is a D+ average.  My classes consisted of the usual mix of English, American History, Civics, plane geometry (I should have been in algebra by this time) and Biology.

Biology! Biology was taught by Miss Buchanan.  Miss Buchanan changed my life.  A staunch conservative old maid who wore octagonal rimless glasses, her hair in a bun, button to the Adams apple touch me not blouses, straight skirts and men’s wing-tip shoes, Miss Buchanan was too blunt for her own good, and that is what saved me.

Half of lecture time was spent learning about things like rotifers, and half was spend learning her view of politics.  Miss Buchanan had no use for people who had no purpose in life.  It took her no time to zero in on me.

In keeping with her ideas about purpose and performance Miss Buchanan used the existing five rows of desks in the classroom as a template.  From her left across the room, the first row was occupied by A students, the second by B students and so on to the fifth row which held those that were failing. After each test seating was reassigned.  Janis Mendelson spend the entire time in the first seat in the A row.  Janis’ father was an internist in town.  She was intense, humorless, and very smart.

I spent my time in the C and D rows mostly. 

I had been caught eating sunflower seeds in class, and for a month or two Miss Buchanan called me “Sunflower Seeds”.

Born near Mena, Arkansas, Miss Buchanan went to school barefoot, and claimed to have never worn shoes until she entered college and was forced to.  By that time she was like Cindy, “shoes and stockings in her hand and feet all over the floor”.  She claimed that women’s shoes hurt her feet.  Maybe, so, but I think it was her preference for reasons no one talked about then.

Sometime in the middle of the semester Miss Buchanan came into the classroom, walked to my seat and the seat of another student and handed us an exam.  She told us that our job that hour was to answer the questions and hand it in when the period was over.

The following day Miss Buchanan walked in, strode across the room like she was stepping over corn rows, like she always did, and stared out the window for what seemed a long time.  Then she turned, walked back to me and said, “I thought you were stupid.  It’s much worse; you’re LAZY.”  Apparently, what I had taken the day before was some sort of aptitude test.

From that day on she called my “Driftwood”.  She told the entire class that I was like driftwood, tossed on the sea by wind and tides, drifting, taking no responsibility for my life, and at some point I would wash up on a beach not of my choosing.  Sometime during the second semester Miss Buchanan was relieved of her job.  We were told that she was sick, and we had a substitute teacher the rest of the year, but the rumor mill said there were too many complaints from parents about her teaching style.

That’s really tragic.  What I learned in tenth grade biology class had little to do with biology, but it had everything to do with life.

 

“…Some I remember moreso than others - Ms Buchanan, Mr. Grace, Ms. Van Riper, Ms. Pride...”: Excerpted from the recollections of a high school teacher who graduated the year before I did from Ft. Smith High School.

 

The next year I met with my guidance counselor and he outlined a plan to get my grades up as much as possible.  I took Algebra one and two, Chemistry one and two, took regular English, not college preparatory English my senior year, did not take Latin (“It isn’t necessary to get into college or medical school and Miss Pride would flunk you in Latin, and instead you should take typing”.)

All of that turned out to be helpful and illuminating.

I had found in the previous year that schools used a stratification system putting students of similar ability together.  In a 1-5 system with 5 being the highest I was in 5.  When I took non-college prep English I made “As”.  Most of those students didn’t know a gerund from a giraffe, and weren’t interested in ever knowing.

For one of our assignments we were to write the opening paragraph to a novel.  What I wrote was some sort of “It was a dark and stormy night” effort, but it was read by the teacher before the class.

In typing I got to sit next to Charmaine Bourgeois, a Cajun girl who was in love with some young man back home in Louisiana and oblivious to me and every other thunderstruck boy at school.  Typing turned out to be the best thing Mr. Herndon recommended, for reasons he couldn’t have predicted.  I wasn’t a typist, but I was able to maintain the 45 words a minute without errors standard and got through the class unscathed.

Miss Buchanan’s harsh and unconventional criticism and the revelation that I wasn’t stupid gave me confidence, and raised my overall grade point to an acceptable level.  Additionally, I think I scored pretty high on the ACT (we didn’t take the SAT in the middle of the country then) and all of that let me get into a little cow college in Arkansas where I did OK.

I belonged to an honor society, was elected Student Body President, and despite my difficulty with numbers majored in Biology (Miss Buchanan’s influence) and minored in Chemistry.

My name appeared in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.

Thanks, Miss Buchanan, I hope you are somewhere walking barefoot through a sun warmed field of clover.

Views: 148

Comment by koshersalaami on January 20, 2018 at 6:52am

Lazy. They thought that a lot before they got ADHD. 

Comment by Ron Powell on January 20, 2018 at 7:11am

"Lazy. They thought that a lot before they got ADHD."

Think what that meant for an ADHD kid who was black...

Special Ed....

Black children with ADHD were/are routinely and disproportionately consigned to Special Ed as mentally challenged...

In some jurisdictions, that meant being kept out of school altogether...

Comment by Steel Breeze on January 20, 2018 at 7:25am

school was easy and boring....the only reason i finished hs was the ol man would kick my ass if i didn't....

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 20, 2018 at 9:20am

My personal reference to education is totally worthless today.  I think I mentioned in a comment elsewhere that the high school I graduated is now 43% Hispanic.  I do know that just considering elementary school, I started in a four room building - two grades to a room - with an outhouse.  The black elementary school 6 blocks away looked just like mine.  In my second year a new extension was added with indoor plumbing, a room for each grade and a separate room for the principle.

When I graduated high school the black school looked just like it did 12 years earlier.

I accidentally erased a previous comment that said I think ADHD is real, over diagnosed, and an easy out for teachers who want a flock carved from the middle; quiet, complacent, and obedient.

The schools were integrated a couple of years later, but I was off to college and basically never went back.

This is not the piece about racism, but this comment could fit there.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 20, 2018 at 9:44am

AKA I hope I didn’t rrase yourcomment.

Comment by Anna Herrington on January 20, 2018 at 12:01pm

I always appreciated the blunt teachers - the ones who just told it like it is.... although not sure about assigning students to the row according to their last grade.... for some that could be the competition they need while with others, the crushing embarrassment that causes them to recede or give up.  Seems rather luck of the draw whether a student gets the right motivation from their teachers, we human respond in such different ways.

Students who clearly are smart "and just don't apply themselves" (what I heard for ages) must confound a linear thinking teacher who has no issues with focus....

Glad you found your way.

Comment by koshersalaami on January 20, 2018 at 12:35pm

I’m still dealing with ADHD but double now, because my daughter has an unusually severe case of it and hates meds. In spite of how common it is, how well it’s dealt with is really variable because a lot of teachers still view it as a maturity issue rather than an actual disability. I had two kids with IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) in the schools at the same time. I had less trouble with J in that regard because his disability was so screamingly obvious and couldn’t be anything else. The difficulty there was that cerebral palsy is so individualized that there can’t be a formula for dealing with it. 

My ADHD wasn’t diagnosed until my forties. I didn’t grow up in circles that would have been conscious of something like that, though I guess the schools should have been. I don’t know when serious diagnosis started. In retrospect, if anyone knew what it was I should have damned near been a poster child for it. If I’d known what it was, particularly in any detail, I’d probably have asked to be checked for it. There were so many times when I sat down to do work and physically couldn’t keep my head in it until the pressure became great enough to overrule everything else. This especially manifested in practicing classical piano. I took an unusually long time to learn pieces in college because I’d lapse and start improvising or something in the practice room. Also, in retrospect, my practicing methodology was lousy. 

Comment by Ben Sen on January 20, 2018 at 3:15pm

A lovely tribute.  This is what I've come to expect of "our" educational system.  It is a testament to mediocrity. If it wasn't for the Buchanan's of the world we'd all be as ignorant as the poor deluded Trumpers.  My savior was Renie Gnau, a nun who liked to have fun.  Of course, she was looked at askance by the collective and eventually left the convent--leading the mass exodus as it was at the time.  I became the only student in anyone's memory at the school who won a National Merit Scholarship.  To this day, I remain the only one of my classmates who became a writer and left the Midwest for NYC where at least I'm not considered a freak.  Renie remains my friend until this day, one of the proudest relationships in my life.  When you were as far out in the world we came as we were it creates a special bond.  As much as I've written about it, I still don't think I've captured it fully.    

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 20, 2018 at 3:33pm

One of my daughters has something. She was evaluated at the end of 2nd grade and the psychologist thought it fit best into ADD. Meds didn’t seem to help and they made her different both in the way she felt and was treated by other students. She was evaluated again in 7th grade. The report was that her verbal IQ was above normal while her performance IQ was so high they couldn’t score it. That caused problems of ignoring what she heard or not reading directions in favor of “figuring things out”. She went to college in art and is a successful hair stylist, but it has been a long and winding road.

Our other daughter is off the scale verbally. Academics were a piece of cake; magna cum laud in three years while working and raising kids. Neither kid was normal.

Comment by Ben Sen on January 20, 2018 at 3:34pm

I also got lucky in college.  I had to go to a third rate school, mostly for financial reasons since I wouldn't go to a Catholic college.  The teachers were so delighted to have a smart kid in class two of them let me study whatever I wanted and became friends for life.  It didn't do that much for me since we live in a world where the prestige of where you went to school is what matters, not what you know or have learned.  I've come to take pride in the people who've been my teachers and mentors.  One has just been nominated for a lifetime achievement award from the Oscar committee for teaching improv.  I knew he was great from the minute I met him but at the time it wasn't generally accepted.  I never became a teacher.  I haven't got the fucking patience.

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