The other night my parents told me they were attending their next-to-last set of parent teacher conferences at Old East High School in Salt Lake. My youngest sibling will graduate next year and then my parents just won’t have anybody left to conference about. But they told me they won’t really miss it: after 23 years, I suspect they’ve heard just about everything there is to hear about their children as students.
Talking to them, though, got me thinking about teachers and classes I’ve had over the years. My family has never moved more than a couple of blocks and so all of us siblings have attended the same couple of elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools (Bonneville, Clayton (and West), and East (and West), for anybody interested). Most of the teachers I had in high school have retired, of course, but some of the best ones are still around and, in fact, the English and Biology teachers my sister has this year are the very same ones I had when I was a junior.
Thinking about those teachers got me considering the best classes and teachers I’ve had over the years and so I came up with a list of the top ten classes I’ve had—ranging from when I just a little dude walking back and forth to Bonneville Elementary all the way to my time in medical school in Philadelphia. So here, in order, are descriptions of the top ten:
10) Anne Story (Eleventh Grade, Bio): This class actually wasn’t quite as hard as my ninth-grade bio class (see below) but the thing about Ms. Story is that she managed two tough things at once: she was a great teacher who knew her stuff and taught us well, but, even more than that, she was one of those priceless adults who “gets it.” When we stayed out till 3 in the morning painting the E (a large rock on a mountainside that is a symbol of high school pride but which has to be repainted every couple of years to stay bright enough to see from afar), she’d let us sleep in her back room the next morning. When I had to miss classes for senior choir stuff, she was cool with that. When our friend committed suicide, she got what that meant in a way that was totally different from some of the other, detached, adults. She was one of us, and we loved her for it.
9) Brother Clarke (Tenth Grade, Seminary): I grew up a student of The Book of Mormon, and it was Brother Clarke who first really taught me to know and love the New Testament. This was the first year I really started to appreciate the details of the Atonement and Brother Clarke was a teacher without guile–perfect for helping us to learn about the Savior and his sacrifice.
8) Dr. White (Med School, Anatomy): The first semester of med school was the longest bit of water-treading I’ve ever done–mostly I just worried about making it from test to test alive. But one of the few fun bright spots was, of all things, anatomy. Now, to realize how ingenious Dr. White was, you have to understand that anatomy, at its core, is two things: Too Much and Too Boring–it’s basically the endless study of where a whole bunch of things with really complicated names live in the human body. NOTHING should be more boring. But Dr. White made it not only interesting but somehow entertaining, even funny. And then, he could manage to compress a month’s worth of “fascia lata,” “flexor pollicus longus,” and “gubernaculum” into two hours of test review–and have all of it make sense.
7) Mr. Eckberg (Ninth Grade, Bio): Of all the teachers on this list, this is the one I would NEVER have put on this list when I was actually in his class. He taught me biology in ninth grade and his class was probably as hard as many of my college classes. Every assignment was a series of essay questions and we got no credit unless the answers were perfect–anything missing or anything wrong and you had to redo the thing and turn it back in for re-grading. He had no due-dates except one big DEADline at the end of the term. And the final was a 900 word matching test with every word in the bio book glossary–except, oh yeah, he removed all the easy ones and there were 30 possible answers for every 20 words. The result was a class that was WAAAAAAY beyond what any little high school freshman should be doing–but here I am a doc these many years later and I can still remember the first time I learned about photosynthesis and the electron transport chain and, more importantly, about writing, studying, synthesis of material, and the scientific method. The class was a doozy, but the learning was worth it.
6) Mr. Miller (fifth grade): Mr. Miller was perhaps the best I ever met at making learning come alive. When we studied the American Revolution, he armed us all with yardsticks and then took us on the back lawn and designated one corner Lexington and Concord, one Bunker Hill, and so on. When he wanted to teach us about writing a letter, he let us help edit a letter he had written urging NASA to launch a bicentennial (or something like that ) satellite. And when he wanted us to learn about making laws and running businesses, he helped us set up our own little thriving “mini-society,” complete with currency, bylaws, conventions, a court, and to each his own business.
5) Dr. York (college, junior and senior year, American Studies): My wife will start rolling her eyes as soon as she sees that I’m going to write about the book Democracy in America, but it really is the best book ever written about the United States. And even though it is about seven-hundred pages long and even though it is thick enough to resemble reading the tougher parts of second Nephi at times, it is also one of the most lucid things ever written about what makes America tick–even though it was written some two-hundred years ago, it still sometimes seems that it explains America better than everything written nowadays combined. Anyhow, Dr. York introduced me to, and then led me through, this book. In his class, I got to interview folks (everyone from a BYU econ professor to a religion writer for the Des News to a homeless ‘Nam vet) about the American Dream and then write a paper about what they said and what it had to do with Tocqueville and all the other things we learned. I remember nights spent by the fire, curled up with my copy of Tocqueville, marveling at the man’s ability to think and to ferret out insights so far beyond the obvious but that ring so wonderfully true. Reading the book, and attending the class, were like turning and turning and turning a diamond, finding new splendor in each of its million facets. Dr. York’s was the kind of class I went to college to take.
4) Mrs. Lake (11th grade, English): I’ve always been able to use big words semi-accurately and I’m usually pretty good at sounding like I know what I’m talking about. As a consequence, most of my teachers up through high school thought my writing was “just ________” (fill in happy adjective of your choice).
Then I got to Ms. Lake.
I still remember the first paper I turned in in her class (Becca is undoubtedly rolling her eyes at this point, too, because she’s heard me tell this story about a zillion times). It was a five page paper on the poetry of John Donne. I had spent some time on the writing, I felt like I understood the subject as well as anyone in the class, and I was confident I would get in the high nineties, maybe above one-hundred with the five points extra credit I got for turning it in early. When she called me to her desk to pick up the paper, I walked up with the kind of in-class swagger that only a hopeless nerd can master. I picked up those five pages–plus one extra stapled to the front where she included her comments and my grade–and looked down to see my perfect score: 56. Fifty-freaking-six! And that was with extra credit! I turned the paper over–maybe she had written the number upside down… But no, that was really the grade. And, to make it all the worse, I swear I left a little trail of blue ink all the way back to my desk, she had left my paper bleeding with her bright blue ink and it dripped from all the ways she had slashed and torn into it. Needless to say, she relieved me of any thought I had about being a great writer and made me build my writing style back from the ground up. She was one of the best teachers, and best thinkers, I’ve known.
3) Mrs. Martinez (sixth grade): Ms. Martinez was not my home-room teacher, but I had her for almost everything else–math, English, social studies. What I most remember, though, was that this was the time I first really started thinking about writing. Even though we were only twelve at the time and I can’t imagine we wrote anything that was very interesting or very good, Ms. Martinez read every paper and handed each one back lit up with her neon blue pen. From all her glowing comments, you’d of thought we were all on our way to Pulitzers and the National Book Award. I loved getting the papers back and so I spent more and more time before handing each one in. She lit up everything she taught just like her blue pen lit up our papers and I still remember and feel the influence she had on my life and my love of learning. Call it corny, but it’s true.
2) The Editing Pig (many years, English, grammar, and Strunk and White’s rules of style): So, sometime I will have to do a post on the editing pig, so you can come to understand the true genius of this little yellow piece of plastic pork. Suffice it for now to say that when my Dad was trying to figure out a way to help us learn to edit our papers when we were still pretty little, he figured out that we had a lot more fun editing when it was done with the help of a little yellow pig (the pig was one of those little plastic farm animal toys, about half an inch tall and a bit over an inch long, with a special set of yellow piggy glasses). Sometimes the pig got really excited when we wrote something well, and sometimes he went into cardiac arrest on my dad’s desktop when we wrote run-on sentences of otherwise made him gag with terrible English (reports of the pig needing immediate medical resuscitation may or may not be true…). I can’t begin to count the number of hours my dad spent helping me learn to write, but all the teachers listed above who helped me learn to think and express wouldn’t have been much good if not for the countless hours with my dad and that pig, downstairs under the dim light of Dad’s desk-lamp.
1) Mom (all of the above, and a lot more, too): My mom told me that she got to the point, when my brother and I were little, where she hung her diploma above our cribs and then, while she was changing the umpteenth diaper of the day, she would think to herself, I do know how to have an intelligent conversation, I do know words with more than one syllable… Mom went to college and did plenty well, she is a smart and accomplished lady who could have done a lot of important and more visible things if she had gone out into the world to make her way. But from the time I was born until my youngest sibling went off to school, mom stayed home, and then, even when Natalie was in school, Mom only ever worked when we all were gone for the day. She was always home when we were and so she was there for every crush, skinned knee, good grade, bad grade, happiness, sadness, and all that came between. Like Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am. All that I hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”