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: 126

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.

Comment by Ben Sen on January 20, 2018 at 3:53pm

Who else bothers to spend so much time writing to an audience that hardly exists but chronic underachievers or frustrated artists who won't quit?

Comment by Foolish Monkey on January 20, 2018 at 4:05pm

for a while I was exhausted after a long depression...I had dealt with the depression via therapy but the exhaustion was sinking me back down again.  I've always been a high energy person, but I can also enjoy not doing anything physical unless I prod myself...  I couldn't prod.  it wasn't working.  I was sinking.  So I had an adventurous therapist who put me on provigil.  THAT snapped me out of inertia and depression but jesus h christo, it made me a cold analytical human being.  I could cut right through you with words.  and my brain was fast - amazingly fast.  all that cold looking through you shit put a terrible strain on my marriage.  so I weaned myself off them.  completely.  even taking a half a pill changed my personality radically.  i am surviving...I've gained weight but I don't care.  I'm happy.  I like my husband who is a terrific guy and he likes me again.  I think old age is great in some ways....I think maybe I outgrew my ADHD but I still am easily distracted, obsessive, etc. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 20, 2018 at 5:26pm

"Who else bothers to spend so much time writing to an audience that hardly exists but chronic underachievers or frustrated artists who won't quit?"

This is why I like to get your comments.I have wondered what draws us together and this both summarizes and clarifies what it is.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 20, 2018 at 5:47pm

Monkey, I don't think we outgrow ADHD.  We just learn coping mechanisms that more or less work.  One of my daughters and her life partner gave up alcohol a couple of years ago.  It was a big adjustment.  Their routines changed.  Their circle of friends changed.  He goes to a Buddhist support group of some kind.  They are happier, but it was frightening for them.

I've had a couple of bouts of clinical depression, the last one about 20 years ago.  It is incredibly painful.  I wish you the best.  In the end we all have to make our own way, but it is good to have friends on the journey.

Comment by Foolish Monkey on January 20, 2018 at 6:19pm

that's very kind of you rodney.  thank you.

Comment by moki ikom on January 20, 2018 at 6:49pm

Oddly enough, in retrospect, i guess i could be accused of having excelled in optimism.  From what was claimed to be the largest high school graduating class in texas of time i submitted an essay for a scholarship competion sponsored by Houston's Optimist Club.  English was my hardest subject until i took and loved Latin, but English was never strong suit. The first book i remember reading of my own volition was Hershey's Hiroshima in first semester ninth grade.  For required book reports I wasn't aware of Cliffnotes but i was apparently good enough at making do with jacket covers synopses.  When I submitted the essay i had yet to be accepted into military academy and like all fit males my age, i knew without getting into college i was a prime candidate for being drafted to murder or be murdered for America in Vietnam.  I had no academic or career advisors in any of six different all white high schools in four far-flung states and no father during that time with a mother whose waitress tips determined whether we five kids were going to be homeless or not again the following week.

No doubt I had a penchant for short books to read for book reports, Hilton's Lost Horizon filled that bill.  I remember it as the only book report by me graded an A and it being in the class where the girl sitting in the row next to me asked me if i we could go to the  prom together,, i hope she went with someone, as with dating at all, i took a pass on the event.  I was near to failing my second year of French at the time and had composed most of the Optimist Club essay during French class, never doing at home anything related to schoolwork.  I don't remember a word of what I wrote, but it must have impressed someone or else mine and Linda A’s were the only submissions from our high school.  At any rate, I was invited by the Club to bring my mom to the Club's annual awards dinner where, nearly choked speechless by self-consciousness, I ended up at a microphone thanking the Club for the honor of being selected and announcing that I had been accepted to the academy so i could not use their scholarship,, thinking back now, i'm sure it was my mom way more than I who wanted to go to that awards dinner, but Linda was my dream date, the only girl in seniors' all male advanced math and science class.   I do now remember too the applause when at seventeen yrs old  -and never having held a girl’s hand since before xmas ninth grade- i said i was joining the at-war u.s. military, in effect at first, becoming real for me being in nixons first innagural of seemingly war-protestors standing room only but for the parades mandatory participants and of course Nixon, his family and entourage from behind bullet resistant panels beaming and waving to us marching along in front of them.

…  …

i’m thinking that when one comes from an unconventional family experience, his or her idea of what is conventional may be a bit jaded when it comes to defining  conventional’, so looked it up:

based on or in accordance with what is generally done or believed.

"a conventional morality had dictated behavior"

synonyms:normal, standard, regular, ordinary, usual, traditional, typical, common

….

i’d been searching my memory for unconventional teachers, thinking there has to be one in there other than my phys chemistry teacher who literally gave me an A after I effectively grafittied my way through his semester final exam just to get out of there in less than twenty minutes… come to think of it, it was an unconventional semester, i’d fully expected to fail at least a couple of classes, including especially Dr. Reed's pchem which was my major, i was ready for change,, but that was not to be, as that semester was to be the only time i ever made the dean’s list and I had to delay by a year my failing a semester in order to appreciate the freedom of not being threatened by the draft, which as it turned out was still less taxing on my will to live than working seven days a week, twelve hours a day oil and water drilling rigs until getting back in school to finish b.s. 

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