From the OWP: The Better Teacher

Here's a little piece I wrote today at the Oregon Writing Project. Now I just need to figure out how to track down this former teacher to share it with her.

The Better Teacher

Mrs. Green was a better teacher than I’ll ever be. Only a few years from retirement, she’d watched Withrow High School change from the segregated, all white, highest quality school in Cincinnati Public, to the low-income, all-black school of middling quality, to its current renaissance as the IB magnet serving the now upper-middle class black neighborhood and the few white kids being bussed in by parents who’d white-flighted out a generation before. She commanded the room with utmost authority but always made us all feel valued. A lot of this power came from her ability to recognize our individual needs. Some students needed, more than anything, to break free from the use of double negatives. Others needed to expand their vocabularies with the lists she gave us each Monday and the tests each Friday. I needed a dose of humility.

Mrs. Green could have broken me down. She could have told me, in front of everyone, that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, that I wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, that I ought to get over myself. I can imagine her remonstrance mimicked in the halls by students who, despite my best efforts to despise them, were right to look askance at the weirdo white kid in the trench coat with the spikes in the epaulets, hiding in his earphones and a paperback novel from the library. He was a freak, angry and scared and full of himself. Mrs. Green could see all of that. She was able to look beyond the arrogance that manifested most fully in her class, where I felt most comfortable with my abilities, and see the kid who was terrified of everything else.

One day she asked me to stay after class. I don’t think I’d been acting out that day. Maybe I’d rolled my eyes one time too many, maybe answered too many questions. More likely, I’d checked out, complete with the slouch that advertised my withdrawal. I don’t remember students “oooo”ing when she asked me to wait, which inclines me to believe she did it in a careful, subtle way.

“Ben,” she said, “I can’t teach you how to be a better writer. You’re already a better writer than I am. But I know some people who can.” And she marched me down to the library and explained how our class would work for the rest of the school year. It was the fall, so this seemed like an eternity. Her plan was simple. Every few days she’d assign me another book to read. When I finished, I had to write her a paper on each one. She knew I could tear through them in a couple days. She didn’t know that I was not, and still am not, a fast reader, and that I kept up this pace by reading on the bus (an hour long ride each way), at home where I hid from the comfortable, overly-perfect suburban life I hated, and yes, in my other classes, where the subjects didn’t come as easily. What she did know was that I would chafe at the idea that the writers she exposed me to were better than me. I would fight back. She wanted me to fight back, to criticize their work, to argue that I could do a better job. I think she had this plan from the beginning.

When I told her I didn’t like a book, she had me read another by the same author. I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. “Six pages and six years pass with no dialogue,” I whined.

“You didn’t like it? Read The House of the Seven Gables.”

I didn’t like the first book she gave me by Thomas Hardy. So she made me read Far From the Maddening Crowd. I read Turgenev. I read Camus. The more I criticized, the more I read, and now I see that she subtly directed my criticisms, not only pushing me to look deeper but also guiding me to examine the skills she wanted me to work on. Hardy and Hawthorne didn’t make me a better writer. Mrs. Green did. But she never said so.

I don’t think I could tell a student they are a better writer than I am, so I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good a teacher as Mrs. Green. But I can admit that she taught me more than writing. She taught me about teaching.