former teacher


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The math teacher took this picture in the early 1980’s for the Year Book, but I think it might not have ever been published. I’m wearing a rather gaudy imitation of a Greek folk dance costume, which I had made. With me, is a remarkable senior who agreed to allow me to teach him in front of my twelfth grade World Literature class how to do a Greek dance—well, actually it was a quasi-Greek dance. I only sort-of remembered a basic step from seeing it done when I was in Greece.

You might wonder why I chose to go to Greece, and I would tell you up front that I didn’t just bop off to Greece for the summer. Truth is, Scholastic, the publisher, sponsored a summer session in Greece, which was strictly for teachers. Scholastic named the program Scholastic International and the course title was Classical Civilization. The first half of the session would be at the university in Thessalonica, the settlement to which Paul sent his (and other’s) writings, titled Letters to the Thessalonians. It is located in northern Greece not very far from Mount Olympus.

The second half of the session would be held at the University of Athens where we would continue our study of ancient Greek history and visit additional sites we would study. Of course there would be numerous photo opportunities for us, including shots of Greek folk dancing, all gleaned in order to enrich our future teacher lesson plans.

And so, after the quick-study student pictured with me to the left had proved how easily the dance could be learned, all the student desks were moved to the back of the room so that the entire class could do the grapevine step in a line dance, then a circle dance that looked pretty authentic. Some students expressed how ready they now were to study Oedipus Rex, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Of course the rhythm of the tape recording of Greek folk dance music I had purchased while in Greece added to the feel of authenticity.

Those of you who have read my book The Dirty Days based on my life growing up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression know that since childhood I had longed to become a good teacher. You also know that my chance of ever going to college and becoming a teacher seemed next to impossible, much less attend a summer session in the Mediterranean country where OEDIPUS was performed on the outdoor Greek stage many centuries earlier. Greece is also the country from which we inherited the stories of Homer, whose condensed and edited story, THE ODYSSEY, was usually taught at the ninth grade level.

As it turned out, when I found myself in the tumultuous 1970s facing freshmen of multiple abilities daring me to breath life into THE ODYSSEY, I was thankful for all I had learned about Classical Greece as well as modern customs; and, I wore my Greek dress, played my tape of Greek folk music and showed them my slides that illustrated numerous customs of Greek culture. Most freshmen were surprised to learn the Greeks were the first to conceptualize the theory of the atom. More important, I was able to show my students slides of where democracy was first conceived and eventually implemented and how that fact likely paved the way for the growth of Christianity in Greece. All of that sharing, so that the student’s learning experience would be, ahem, hopefully a long-lasting, positive experience.

Yes, a lasting positive learning experience is ideal, but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak; and sometimes a teacher gets an inkling of proof many years later.

For instance, not long ago, a well-dressed and well-spoken man approached me in Macy’s and told me he recognized me, then told me his name, that he had graduated from college and went on to become a minister. He said he really got a lot out my class and then reminded me that instead of being put into a special needs reading class, he had been main-streamed into my ninth grade English class. Then he confided that to this day he is embarrassed when he recalls an essay he wrote at the end of the unit on The Odyssey.

I didn’t tell the minister, but I could still see his essay in my mind. Its content was very much like this:

“At first I thot that Odeesee story was junk because it was as hard to understand as the Bible. But the teacher told us intressing stories about Greese and after we got into it like when the one-eyed monster giant chowed down the stupeed guys that dranked too much wine. Odeesee did not need thos kind on his ship.”

I believe those words were from his heart, and assuming the significance of his long-ago essay, along with his positive comment as a former student, I couldn’t ask for any more proof of the importance of infusing as much relevance as possible into teacher lesson plans—and the tremendous impact a past student’s kind words can have on a former teacher.