It was 1973, and I was an 8th grader at Gesu Catholic Grade School in University Heights, Ohio. I suffered that year. My classmates were a rough bunch, treating teachers and each other with a very unchristian-like, cold-hearted cruelty. In fact, they’d convinced two teachers to quit midyear.
Had the option been available to me, I would have fled as well. The exiled teachers were the lucky ones.
My worst hour of the day was gym class. You see, I was a runt of a kid — puny, scrawny, shy, always picked on, always picked last. I cowered in the corner during dodge ball games.
If only the teacher had nurtured my latent athletic ability! (I would discover it only many years later, after college.) But no, he helped me not at all, treating me with a withering disdain since I wasn’t on the football team. Worse, he threatened students with a large bamboo pole, and made kids cry each time he used it. He terrified me.
One day when the bell ending gym class had finally rung, I let out a whoop of joy.
Nonplussed, the teacher ordered me to his office. There was no bamboo pole for me, however. “So, Ellison, you like to scream, do you? Well, then, start screaming!”
He made me stand there like an idiot in his office, shrieking again and again, while my classmates filed by the open door, laughing.
I still despise that man, even though I forgot his name ages ago.
I’ll never forget Sister Mary Rita Lynn, though. She hadn’t received the memo about the 8th grade hellions. She had fun with us. She liked us. Why, she even liked me!
In one class, Sister taught us to write poems in response to a movie we’d seen about various exotic (to us in the Midwest) sports. She helped us brainstorm sensory images, which she listed on the board, then asked us to arrange them in new, creative ways. “Poetry is easy, kids! I can’t wait to see what you create.”
I knew I had no talent, but I tried anyway. (I’d do anything for Sister Rita Lynn.) Twenty minutes later, I showed her my verses about a surfer engaged in a fierce battle with the waves. “And only the end will tell,” I concluded, “who is master of who.” (Sister made me change the final “who” to “whom,” giving me a quick mini-lesson on subjective versus objective pronouns.)
The next class was history with another teacher, whose name I’ve also forgotten; and in the middle of some interminable lecture, a messenger came from Sister: Could she please have Dave Ellison’s draft poem about the surfer to use as a model for the other class?
Numb, I took it out of my binder and handed it over. I sat dumbfounded for the remainder of the period, awed by the fact that, at that moment, Sister was reading my poem aloud to other students, praising it — praising me.
How much of my writing today do I owe to that wonderful woman? My battered self-esteem survived because of her.
In 1973, one teacher humiliated me. Another resurrected me. Such is the awful, awesome power of a teacher.
I vow that, like Sister Mary Rita Lynn, I will use mine to enable my students to recognize their talent and their goodness.
And I pray they remember my name.
(This is a preview of a collection of such articles I hope to publish soon: Rambling on Borrowed Time — A Teacher’s Marks)