There’s a Facebook post going around inviting you to name your elementary teachers and I have to admit that I can’t remember any of my teachers’ names. Part of the reason is my age – it’s been quite a few years since I was an elementary student – and part of the reason is that I spent Kindergarten through senior year trying to keep my head down and not be noticed. Our schools can be a tough place for students who don’t fit in even now and they were a special kind of hell for introverts back in the 70’s and early 80’s as I made my way through K-12. In thirteen years, I had one teacher able to see through all of that and who made a huge difference.
As an introvert in a world where being popular and showing off signaled success, I was already at a disadvantage. Add an unstable home life with dysfunctional parents and I’m still amazed that I managed to muddle through to the extent that I did. If my high school had sent home a list of the days I showed up and remained in classes for the entire day rather than a report of my absences, they would have saved a significant amount of paper. I skipped physical education for 3 years in a row.
I spent most of my time in the public library reading and writing. By the time I was a senior and the end of high school was in sight, I had managed to squeak by in everything thanks to dropping off papers and taking tests, except phys. ed. Guess what you cannot skimp on when qualifying to graduate in Massachusetts? P.E. I was faced with returning to school in the fall to take a whole lot of gym classes. I was ready to drop out and take the GED test. I was convinced I had no business being in school, despite being able to get decent grades and great SAT scores without really attending school.
All that changed one afternoon when one teacher gave me something to think about. He asked me if maybe the problem wasn’t me or my abilities but the school’s. Had I ever considered that perhaps schools treat everyone the same when we are each different and have different needs? He then gave me a copy of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development which had recently been released.
My mind was completely blown. Until then, everything was my fault – my family situation, my parents’ issues, my difficulty engaging in school, everything. It really had never occurred to me, growing up with that mindset, that maybe the adult world was flawed and who I was as a person was OK. This was in 1982-1983 and soon Howard Gardner would be putting forth his Theory of Multiple Intelligences and we would begin to look at teaching and learning in a very different way. Perhaps I was born too soon.
I ended up doing a second senior year of high school in Jerusalem, Israel where I also skipped P.E. but graduated with distinction and a greater belief in myself. And if there is one thing that motivates me as a teacher, it is the desire to create a better educational experience for my students than I had and to be that teacher who helps a student realize the world doesn’t have to be as it is now.
So, I take this moment to say thank you for everything, Alan November. For being there, for believing in me, and for helping me to see a way forward.
Oh, and I was the one who stole your Neil Postman books on education. Sorry.