So I’m hearing that today is Teacher Appreciation Day. I won’t skip an opportunity to thank the teachers that influenced me the most.
Mr. Poling taught a senior year class called “Problems of Democracy.” Long before that year, most schools and teachers had changed that course name to “American Government” or “Civics,” but not Mr. Poling. It was a constant lesson in constructive criticism, effective resistance, and remembering that the government worked for you, not the other way around. Once, in the first couple weeks of the class, he asked us why we weren’t allowed wearing hats inside the school building. That question has stuck with me ever since, because the only answer is some proprietary rule about “respect,” as if cloth on your head could really be disrespectful to someone. The rule doesn’t have a functional purpose, and before that day, I’d never realized it. He’s one of my biggest influences today, and he probably doesn’t even know it.
Mrs. Hambel and Mr. Kraner were two math teachers who understood what it means to “engage” students. As short as my attention span was in school, these two held it without fail. It was a combination of showing the students respect, treating them as equals in the learning process, losing the rigidity of the standard classroom, and simply making things interesting and applicable to real life that made these two phenomenal teachers. My interest in math wasn’t by chance; it was fostered by great teachers. If we could clone these two and put them in every classroom, we wouldn’t have so many kids who dislike the subject (or so many who don’t understand it thoroughly).
Mr. Clark was my fifth grade teacher and one that I don’t mention too often, but he really set me on the path to get me where I am today. I started fifth grade in 1990, long before the ubiquity of internet-connected home computers. In the back of Mr. Clark’s classroom was an Apple IIe. He put me in front of that thing and turned me loose, and before the end of the year, I had taught myself to write a text-based football game with downs, touchdowns, field goals, play-calling and a half-skill/half-random play engine.
Miss Vipperman is another teacher that I haven’t spoken of much since high school. Miss Vipperman had a nose for finding the creative works in a pile of papers written in search of a passing grade. She rewarded those who focused on the meat of the project instead of the grade at the end. When it came time to assemble a book of poetry and I went way out on a limb, ee cummings style, adding my original work “In Case of Lower Ayes,” she loved it. When she asked us to promote a stageplay with a poster and I used the controversial aspects of Antigone to shock the class, she awarded me a 105% for executing at a higher level. In most classrooms, it would have been a detention. In her class, I had the same creative freedom one experiences upon graduation… the way it should be.
Mr. Maynard and Mr. Horsky took me through the most exciting part of my educational journey. Mr. Maynard came to us near the end of fourth grade to discuss marching band. The idea of making that kind of noise appealed to me and, once I picked up a trumpet, I never looked back. As a matter of fact, Mr. Maynard personally loaned me his own trumpet for two years to carry me through middle school. In seventh grade, I switched to the baritone, and when I joined Mr. Horsky’s Marching Falcons as a freshman, I was disillusioned with much of the high school experience until we hit ninth period every day at 1:45 and I was able to go make some memories on the practice field. These guys didn’t hold tryouts, didn’t worry about the consequences, and yet we carried ourselves to state competition every year based on our passion. More than one in four high schoolers were in the marching band and the sense of camaraderie on the field was unlike anything else on school grounds. The Marching Falcons, and the opportunities provided by these two directors, were the foundation of my self-confidence.
I’ve had great luck with teachers that understood how to reach me and foster my talents (and develop in areas where I lacked). I was challenged early in the fields of math (first grade and Mrs. Matheney), creative writing (third grade and Mrs. Barthelmas), and even my very inconsistent athleticism (Mr. Snyder from first through sixth grade).
There have been some unfortunate incidents (I’m looking at you, Benadum, Packard, and Justice), but I can’t complain about my overall experience throughout my thirteen years of public education. Even the authoritarians featured in this paragraph did me a favor: They taught me that life was full of assholes, and sometimes they’ll be in charge, so you’d probably better learn how to handle that while you’re young. Sometimes, you’ll get a 0% on an important test because you only had a pen and the teacher required pencil… and while I apologize for being so confident in my math skills that I wouldn’t need an eraser, I thank you for teaching me how petty the world can be sometimes. It prepared me for a couple of bosses I’ve lived through.
I guess what I’m saying is that I became the person I am today not through genetics, not through luck, but through education and development provided by some of the most important and useful professionals in the world. As politicians give them flawed lesson plans, parents with mistaken views undo their work, and school boards push for higher scores on standardized tests, I hope our teachers are able to continue sneaking in some education along the way, inspiring the next generation the way mine have inspired me.
Thank you, teachers.