20 August 2008

Those Special Folks from Our Past

I got a very special phone call today, one I never anticipated receiving.

A former student of mine, from the year I taught sixth grade (1989-1990), found me on the Internet and called. He’s pushing 30 now, has a young family and a career. But he’d run across one of those “who was a special teacher in your life?” questions and, once again, as he has over the years, he thought of me. So he looked me up and called, just to tell me that I had made a difference in his life, that I wasn’t like all the other teachers and that was why he and his classmates liked me – I was a real human being, more like a friend.

Oh my God – what a blessing! I remembered that year – my last year as a classroom teacher – as my year from hell. The principal had it out for me, and one of the students made life difficult because he’d really wanted to be in the other sixth-grade classroom with the “cool” teacher. I liked the kids, and I like to think I was an okay teacher. But never in my dreams did I think I’d made a memorable impact on those kids.

And a couple of weeks ago I received a shy “hello” from an old college colleague. I spent my senior year at Sonoma State as second-in-command on the school paper. My colleague was the editor the second semester, so we worked side by side for several months. And haven’t heard from each other since graduating in 1981. I’ve thoroughly been enjoying exchanging emails with him, and am looking forward to his visiting (with his wife) in the fall.

All of which has me thinking about former teachers who made a difference in my life. I can think of four.

Mrs. Fortman – a formidable English teacher at Analy High. It was because of her that I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. She appeared gruff and stern, but her classroom library was filled with thought-provoking (and somewhat radical) novels.

Russ Reade – also at Analy. Russ taught Social Biology, which was one of the two classes I actually showed up on campus for that year. He had us researching and thinking about issues like cryogenics and euthanasia – it was really more like a class on scientific ethics. He retired a short while later to buy a whore house in Nevada.

Cott Hobart – was my Humanities teacher at Santa Rosa Junior College. I hold Cott personally responsible for gifting me with my spiritual path. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and taught about the Eleusinian Mysteries. These have been my spiritual reference points ever since.

Gerry Haslam – taught English and linguistics at Sonoma State. He’s also a writer, and I own several of his books. (I keep very few books.) Gerry was also the faculty advisor on the college paper, so we got to know him reasonably well. He’s one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met.

Who were your special teachers? And have you let them know?


Jeri Dansky said...

From over 40 years ago:

Mrs. Hoffman, 9th grade English. She's the one who taught me to write. Most of us didn't much like her at the time - she was tough - but then we got to high school where the teachers were mediocre, and realized what a gem she was. And yes, we went back and told her.

Mrs. Cant, 8th and 9th grade math. I don't know what it was about her, but she could say, "I think it's getting too noisy in here" and a classroom full of junior high students would suddenly get very quiet. Amazing.

Claire Josefine said...

I don't know what it is about some teachers, either. But some of them are able to command respect, without being commanding. I never mastered that art.

I remembered a fifth teacher -- Dodi. She taught Experimental English and Social Studies at my junior high. It was a free-school style class where we were in charge of our own studies. Not that anyone studied. I remember doing a lot of journal writing, which she always responded to supportively (and was probably the only adult in my life at that time to whom I felt I could turn). I also remember playing Innagaddadavita (sp?) over and over in her classroom -- it must have driven her nuts! Some of us used to go to her house on Tuesday nights and listen to music (Neil Young's Harvest was just out) and indulge in a certain illegal substance... She was so idealistic -- and, looking back, so foolish. Letting 14 and 15 year old kids smoke pot at your house was pretty stupid. I often wonder whateveer happened to her.