Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Teacher of a Lifetime Award

The Grande Dame and Clark Gable as Caesar.
In the midst of her teaching, an announcement would come on and she would haul back with the drama of any major league pitcher, aim carefully, and hurl her eraser at the intercom. That felt covered box always had random chalk outlines that showed how often she hit her target. Then she would rant; about being interrupted while trying to teach us, the bureaucracy that education had become, and how precious her time with us was.

My high school Latin teacher, Ms. Aste was in a class by herself. She loved teaching, she loved the subject matter, she loved exposing us to new ideas, and many of us suspected (though we wouldn't have voiced it at the time) that she loved us.  We knew this you see, because she respected us and while she hoped to impart Latin vocabulary and grammar to us (a nearly hopeless endeavor, in my case) her main goal was to teach us to think for ourselves.

When irritated by all the things that kept her from teaching the way she wanted, that she found idiotic, or pointless she would sigh and say, "Some day I'm going to start a school..."

I would have loved to have seen that school.

She assumed the best of us, and that little eraser number was a brilliant way of demonstrating that if there was a struggle in the classroom, an "us against them" it was never going to be her against us or vice versa but all of us against a time wasting, thought stifling system and administration that was going to keep her from teaching and us from learning. 


In the spring of Senior year, having made it through 3 years with her and twice a day as a junior when I had her for Latin and then Etymology/Mythology, the last 6 weeks she taught us Greek. She framed it as a reward...a subversive one. The text you see, was the Greek New Testament. The day she handed them out she have strict instructions.

"Now y'all can't go out of this room and blab what we are doing in here. Some idiot (we assumed, of course, that she meant a parent) will complain and ruin it for us."

No one ever did. We kept the secret and only now in retrospect do I realize what a brilliant way of handling teenagers that was. Suddenly we craved Greek!  A masterful stroke.

She wanted us to ask questions, of everyone including her if we thought she was wrong. One day while she was dealing with some bureaucratic nonsense that had her frustrated  she looked up and asked a question.

Now, we all heard "How many of y'all are Jews? Raise your hand"

We looked around bewildered. There was a long pause...finally a hand went up. She looked at him, a bit confused.

"You aren't a junior!"

"Oh, I though you said Jews."

A strange look came across her face. 

She threw her reading glasses on the desk.

"And why, may I ask, if that is what you thought I wanted to know, did you not ask me WHY I would be asking such a thing?"

She scanned the room looking at the rest of us.

"And what about y'all?" She was clearly angry.

"You were all just going to sit there and let me ask something like that without questioning me as to why the hell anyone would want to know that? THINK! Haven't I taught you anything?"

We got quite the lecture about questioning everything and everyone and not acquiescing so easily to authority.

Beyond the subjects that our report cards indicated we were taking from her, she was teaching about ancient history, classic movies, classic literature, plays, local history and regaling us with stories from her childhood and of her travels. If someone made a joke about opera, she was bringing her albums and making us listen to them. She arranged for us to usher at the local theatre so we could be exposed to live stage productions. So the first time I went to Rome a couple of years ago, I thought of her often and resolved to go and see her. I contacted some other former students who I thought would be interested but our hectic modern lives intervened and we failed to follow through.

So this past spring when I returned to Italy and stood on the streets of Pompeii I knew when I returned home this time, making that visit would be at the top of my list. I wanted to say thank you and I was curious as to what she would think of the controversies in education swirling about these days. I thought I had a pretty good idea since she used to threaten to disown us as students if any of us ever became teachers. We didn't understand why she would say that and when we asked she would say something cryptic about it not being about teaching anymore. She saw, it seems to me now, the writing on the blackboard.

Which reminds me, I need to make a call...

Do you have a favorite teacher? Maybe more than one?

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