These Are A Few Of Our Favorite Teachers
Senora Carmelita Franco was my first-grade teacher in Nogales, Mexico. She was tough as nails and yet taught us — mostly poor kids — the virtue of charity and giving to those less fortunate. She was in her 50s, a devout Catholic who loved literature and used books to transport us to places we had never heard of. Her true love though, I always believed, was science. She had a talent for explaining things — like the time we asked her why the ocean's waters didn't pour into the emptiness of space. She filled a small bucket of water and swung it around in a circle as fast as she could and said "that's why." I'm not sure it explained physics or the role of gravity, but it made sense to me and the other 7-year-olds at the time.
Robert Stone, the novelist, died not long ago. I took just one class with Stone: Advanced Fiction Writing. It was one of a very short list of creative writing classes at Yale. Just getting in was a coup. He wasn't the most organized or prepared teacher I'd ever had. He had a tendency to utter gnomic pronouncements on the necessity of writing from the gut, then segue into stories about partying on the beach in Mexico with Ken Kesey. In the workshop, we were mostly left to give each other suggestions for revision. But I started to come to office hours just to chat with him. He had a larger-than-life persona, with the talent and accomplishment to back it up. He seemed like a living connection to a lost world, where the life of letters was a tangible, rebellious, enviable thing. He listened to my blatherings and encouraged me to be bold. He taught me that aesthetic judgment was something to preserve and cultivate, that art was a necessary part of social change and that finding the right word could be a sublime act.
I arrived on Reed College's campus my freshman year with lingering self-doubt: I could zing a Frisbee, but what the hell did I know about Aeschylus? Luckily my freshman seminar teacher was Ray Kierstead Jr, a historian who ran the humanities program that forms the core of the Reed curriculum. Kierstead was a master at getting raggedy freshman to exchange and argue ideas – in a small, Socratic-style seminar. He encouraged us to stretch ... to think ... and importantly, to listen to each other. But you also had to back up your assertions with a sound argumentative design – one that referenced Hum 110's primary or secondary texts. If you hadn't read that day's Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato or Aristotle, you couldn't BS your way through seminar. Philosophy, poetry, history, drama, painting and sculpture – Kierstead showed us that studying the humanities is not about amassing information or regurgitating facts. It was about exploring ideas in an intense, disciplined and respectful way. This year-long seminar helped set the foundation for the rest of my intellectual explorations in college and yes, wait for it ... in life too.
With Mrs. Rogers, anything was possible. In her seventh-grade English class in Erie, Penn., we studied Greek tragedies – Medea, Agamemnon and Oedipus Rex. We'd sit on sofas in the reading corner and take turns acting out the plays. One weekend, a friend and I were browsing in her father's Sunday New York Times. We saw an ad for a performance of Oedipus Rex by the National Theater of Greece in New York City. The next day, we marched into Mrs. Rogers' classroom: "Please, please please, can we go?" I still don't know how she made it work – but three weeks later, a dozen of us were sitting in the second-to-last row of the City Center Theater in Manhattan. We leaned forward in our seats as the words we studied in class came alive onstage – in Greek! We couldn't understand the actors, but we knew the story. I'll never forget the way Mrs. Rogers made us see that what we were learning in class was relevant in the outside world. She pushed me to make my ideas reality — no matter how crazy those ideas seemed.
In my early days at Grinnell College, I struggled to keep up in class and nearly dropped out. The problem: I had no self-confidence. Then came Monessa Cummins' Intro to Latin. When I struggled, she told me to try harder. She wasn't especially warm about it, just matter-of-fact: You can do this. I spent hours in a library carrel hunting verbs in a page of Latin run-ons. We met in her office each morning. Mind you, Cummins had several actual children to raise in addition to other classes to teach. Some days she'd see me waiting outside her office and say, 'Just five minutes today.' And I probably took 20. Eventually, something happened inside my brain that had nothing to do with Latin and everything to do with her: a binary fission of faith. Cummins' relentless confidence in me (and patience and generosity) finally divided, creating new cells of confidence all my own. My grades jumped. I made friends. I played drums in a campus band called Bleu Cheese. I became a Latin tutor. I grew up.
When I was 12, I was really into kickball, dissecting earthworms, trying out for the school play and music class. Learning the difference between an adjective and a verb? That wasn't really my thing. But that changed when I took Mr. Cohen's language-arts class in the seventh grade. Mr. Cohen made learning the "parts of speech" a semester-long tournament. It included Jeopardy-like quiz shows, race-the-clock brain games, and my favorite: a puzzle where you had to build a long sentence using certain numbers for each part of speech. My buddy Ladji and I loved to try and crack these puzzles. I always wanted to get my homework done first. Ladji always beat me to it. Learning about adverbs could have been the most painfully boring lesson on the planet, but because Mr. Cohen was creative about how to engage a bunch of restless 12-year-olds, it's something Ladji and I still quibble over, and laugh about today.
Ms. Kane, my high school art teacher, had a ginormous influence on my decision to pursue art as a career. She was not an easy A. She had us 15-year-olds participating in oral critiques using art language such as rhythm, mood and balance to express ourselves. She dove deep into color theory, art history and criticism, and allowed us to develop our own voices. She taught us to read and write about art, too. She made us explain ourselves and our purpose. Which allowed us to see beyond our own drivel and come to something that felt honest and real. She worked with us in so many ways: submitting our work to contests, preparing for the AP art exams, reviewing our portfolios, taking us to art shows. She introduced us to art schools and encouraged us to apply when everyone said it would be a waste of time and money. She taught her students to respect and value work, and that art is the highest form of work. We called her "Mom," in an affectionate way, because of her unconditional love and wisdom. She made us all feel worthy.
Simpson G. Cloyd was an Army veteran of World War II and the photography teacher at Wayne Memorial High School, in suburban Detroit, in the 1970s. Mr. Cloyd couldn't make everyone – certainly not me — a great photographer. What he did do was what great coaches in any subject do: He'd demonstrate the fundamentals and then challenge his students to put them to use. He'd send us out with a camera on a very specific assignment ... he'd provide feedback and criticism ... and send us out to do it again. I remember learning a lot of complicated and technical stuff about f-stops and lenses and film speed and perspective. The kind of stuff that can be way less fun than snapping colorful sunsets or watching prints appear in the darkroom. Techniques and concepts I now realize gave me a deeper understanding of what's happening when the shutter opens and light comes through the lens. In the process, he taught me a lot about how to see the world.