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.