Amid the disturbing reality of Republican book banning, school shootings and hostility toward teachers of African American history, slavery, gender issues and other topics that the right opposes and is legislating against, it’s easy to lose sight of the profound and positive roles teachers can play in the lives of their students.
From high school, I still remember the impact of a history teacher who put at the top of my paper on Napoleon’s march on Moscow: “You have a real knack for writing.” And an english teacher and theater director who taught “Theater of the Absurd” and introduced me to Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet and their way of thinking which resonated so powerfully with me.
In college, my sociology professor explored issue of race, gender and discrimination not as abstract structural concepts, but through personal storytelling and the many conscious and unconscious ways racism, sexism and antisemitism thread through our daily lives. Just before COVID-19 led to quarantining, I flew to Philadelphia to attend an 80th birthday party for my sociology professor whose unusual teaching methods and willingness to share his own personal experiences inspired some 75 former students from around the country to attend and acknowledge him and his impact. (At his home that night, I even convinced him to write a personal essay for Transformations, a narrative series I edit and publish.)
What teachers influenced you the most—and why? What was their impact on your life? I suspect the ones that come to mind have had a significant influence even if you haven’t thought about them for a long time. I think the teachers I’ve had have positively influenced my world view, my belief in a better America and my desire for change.
As always, I look forward to reading your experiences and the opportunity for this community to learn from each other. Please do be respectful.
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I suspect that far fewer high school teachers are now teaching The Theatre of the Absurd. My high school teacher, Ms. Balum, taught us F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emile Zola, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, and John Steinbeck, and she did this in a farm town high school of 140 kids total.
Dear, dear Beulah Lott who was my high school math teacher. She was the only person who ignored the clown and probably boredom in me. She had been teaching for many years by the time I was her student. She informed me that I would take a special math class at 7AM each school day and she was certain that my Dad would get me there in time. It was calculus which in those days wasn’t taught in high school. It was so much fun!!!!! I paid attention and did well. Went on to get a college degree in math, work for IBM in the computer infancy and eventually to medical school. Her actions had more to do with my life’s trajectory that anyone else. Her belief in me was the difference. I now live in the town I grew up in and visit her gravesite, do a little cleaning and thank her for a wonderful joyful life. Teachers make a difference to kids, towns, states, countries and the world.
Mr. Hartle, my high school geometry teacher, was one of the few people at that time in my life that believed I was smart. He had me tutor other students in the subject and I was able to make a little side money.
He was such a good teacher, and I remember he was always so excited to teach us something new. He was always writing and erasing on the chalkboard and was always dusty. Lol.
I did not end up finishing high school, but got my GED later. My teens and twenties were not easy, but it’s never too late to have a happy childhood!
In 2nd grade, Mrs. Harris, a lovely thoughtful woman, made me feel as if she saw me and appreciated me. It's as simple as that really except that she somehow also set an expectation of what I now recognize as moral seriousness. Being one of just a handful of black staff members at a West TN small town school had to have been difficult for her. I do recall classmates and their parents regarding her negatively, which I couldn't understand at all. I loved being in her class. She told me she loved to hear me read and to never hold myself to the performance of my peers, but to reach far and do my best. I felt safe and loved. I even made straight A's for the first and last time that year.
One English professor in college told us that if we crafted a well organized, well written paper that disagreed with every leading authority on that topic or author, he would give you an A. 20 years old and first time I teacher told me to use my own brain.
In my first year of my PhD studies (1986), I took a class in 18th century British literature. The curmudgeonly professor, in his late 70s, was a walking encyclopedia, and I came to highly respect him. Toward the end of the semester he invited us to his home for dinner and conversation. I had just become a citizen and was newly confronted with election choices. I asked him what he thought would be a good way to vote. He said, “I have never voted for a single Republican my entire life. And it turns out, I have never made a mistake.” What an elegant and simple answer! I have followed his example as well as passed it on the my students when they asked.
I was in a boarding school 95% filled with kids of privilege.
Why Mr. Burnes stepped up, allowing me to be socially an equal, was never clear. Looking back now: it’s not that great an age difference - he was 27, I was 17.
With never a hint of sexual spiders’ webs.
One day he let me shift from neutral to first - in his pale blue VW:
taking me from Stone Age to the Industrial Age in one push of a pedal.
Later that year in the fall, I got a call that cut me open. I had sold cameras
that summer in a department store with Jay, a tender wire-rimmed friend
from coal country. He and a friend ran off a hilly road in the rain and they
were gone. Dr Sgarlet later told us blood ran from his ears.
My parents told me there was nothing I could do. Don’t come home.
Burnesy sat me down after dark. What’s most important? To see Jay’s family,
go to his funeral, visit the scene for myself. The next morning I had a
schedule, a ticket and a few extra bucks. He took me to a bus stop, parked
and waited until I was moving, headed a hundred miles upstate.
Twenty five years later, I shifted to a service career, taking me through
emergency work and on to hospice practice. He echoes: “What matters?”
“Make it happen.”
My 6th grade teacher, Mrs Harrison. I was an abused child and she knew it. She was kind and good at a time before CPS. I was a gifted reader and she obtained materials for those of us who were "fast completing our assignments".
She held a mock election for the 68 presidential election and scolded the rest of the classes when I was the ONLY one to NOT vote for Nixon. I had a POW bracelet and she knew how strongly I was opposed to him and to war. The election was open to 4th thru 8th. (Small school, K-8)
She was fair, she was kind. She forced us to see ourselves as we truly are. She taught us about being inclusive, accepting and empathetic.
Empathy was the GREATEST thing she taught us.
And she LOVED "her kids"
And we loved her ❤
Thank you Mrs Harrison. RIP
Mr Parsons Paul Revere Junior High inspired me to be more compassionate.
He illustrated the horror of slave ships by having us lie on the ground head to toe side by side just as human chattel had been transported. History became a living lesson in his classroom and infinitely more interesting. I’ve never forgotten him.
At my 40 year high school reunion, a group of us who had gone K-12 together were reminiscing about Mrs. Carol Gerken, our second grade teacher. Nearly everyone stated that they had been her favorite! How could that be? She had a wonderful way of making each of us feel special- and that feeling has lasted for 50+ years. What a gift!
My gum teacher. I am only 5ft tall and one of our Phys Ed units was track and field where we had to jump standard sized hurdles. Many of the girls refused to do it, in spite of the teachers urging, but I did it. Cleared the hurdle…. It became a metaphor for my life. I chose to jump the hurdles and it has served me well…. I am now 75 and still taking on life’s hurdles.
Wonderful story, wonderful question
Sister Mary Thomas, in second grade, transformed me from a jumble of parts into a human being, She gave me safety, dignity, structure, a mission, and the inexpressible joy of achieving mastery.
I became a teacher.
Miss Thompson, my 5th grade History teacher, influenced me the most. She was a DoD teacher in Yokohama, Japan when my father was stationed at Atsugi Naval Air Base in the 60s. She was caring and encouraging to her students. I gained so much from her and went on to be a History professor. I love history and want to share my passion with my students as she did with hers!
Howard Tyson, my high school Spanish teacher in far West Texas. Thanks to his dedication and intensity, and my willingness to shut up and listen, I still have a reasonable grasp of Spanish...a beautiful language...more than 60 years later. Mil gracious, Senor Tyson!
Wood Smethurst: my first headmaster and my spirit-guide in the world of teaching. I wrote about him here when he passed, in 2015: http://agathon-sbh.blogspot.com/2015/07/a-man-and-school-for-all-seasons.html
My 7th grade history teacher at Grace Church School in Manhattan, Harold—I wish I could remember his last name, but we always called him with great affection “Big Zero”—sensed exactly what I needed from a father figure, knew I was a Yankee fanatic, and asked me to be the equipment manager for the boys baseball team (no girls team in that era). During the last game of the season, he told me to get a bat and pinch hit. I hit a clean line drive over the shortstop’s head. He was so delighted, he put me in right field where, of course, a screaming line drive found me right away. I stuck my glove up and —mirabile dictu—made the out. We had a pen pal relationship for several years after I moved on to another high school in which he shared much wisdom about life, invaluable, indelible. Thank you Big Zero, if you are still with us.
My sophomore English teacher, Gloria Karr. She assigned Babi Yar by Anatoly Kuznetsov for spring semester. This was in the early ‘70’s. I remember having nightmares, I remember asking my parents about it. Dad served in the Navy in WWII. It wasn’t something we discussed at the dinner table, and I’m glad I read it. I seriously doubt high school students are assigned anything about the Holocaust anymore.
I think of him often and tried to track him down to thank him for the music and life lessons. . . Charles Walker, elementary band director extraordinaire. Not only taught me to read music and make music, he left a love for expressing myself and gave me the confidence to do it in public. The 4 years I spent in his classroom were the gift that continued to give my entire life. Thank you for prompting good memories!
I was thoroughly confused, distracted and detached from my high school experience - a product of a disastrously dysfunctional children where music was both my passion and my salvation. Consequently memories of the teachers I experienced in school are limited at best. But, nature abhors a vacuum.
Shortly following graduation I met a man, a master musician, who decided to mentor me. Why? We never spoke of that so I have no idea. What ensued is hard to express in words. Our relationship evolved from mentor-protege to musical partners and then as a life long friend. His tutelage was never taken for granted nor have I ever resisted paying forward what was given to me. This ultimately led to me becoming a professor and program director teaching graduate school at a prestigious university without having as much as an undergraduate degree. None of this would have been possible without this teacher, peer and friend.
I am blessed to have led a life few can image because of him. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of his impact on my life and my obligation to keep the thread going after I’m dead and gone.
I have three. First, my father. I never had him for class as different school, but Penn State required a 6 week sit in a classroom before the regular student teaching. I chose him. I came to see and appreciate him as a different person than the man who always swiped the smallest pickles Mother had made and swatted his hand. He loved teaching, taught not only facts but also things that would be relevant later, i.e. how to fill out income tax forms. A lover of classical music, he always turned off my jazz station, but became a teacher sponsor of a student extra curricular activity of popular music. So, I now have the little case of 45s that hold such biggies as Brand New Key, Chick a Boom, Hot Pants & Shake, Rattle & Roll. He would play them at home. Mother would take a walk. He insisted once, to write for me a required English essay in 11th grade. I turned it in. Got a C+!! He taught me to love history and to always listen to the news which we did each night during supper, not allowed to speak while playing.
Second: Mr. Downing, high school math teacher. It was a time when only boys took math. Well, I took algebra, trigonometry, & geometry. And I was the only girl, often one upping the boys. He treated me the same as the others, was most respectful, always used the Socrates method of answering a question and made me think. Because of him, I wanted to major in math, but never having had calculus in high school, learning, doing the work in college took me so long, I had to renege on my other studies, finally dropping it and that major. I still get out the old algebra book of my dads (he taught math and history) and work problems. I loved it when it used to take 6 pages of scrap paper to figure out the answer to one problem.
Third: Dr. Charles Moffett, the head of the history department at Marshall University. What wonderful lectures he gave. I was enthralled with them. A southerner, a BA from U of Miss, MA U of Ala, PhD Vanderbilt where he also taught. Required to retire from Marshall at age 65. he taught at Ohio State branches, even lectured at West Point. I took several of his courses on the Civil War (The Civil War & Reconstruction), settling of the West (Frontier America) & slavery (From Slavery to Freedom). When my ex was transferred from Huntington, WVA to NYC for a year, Dr. Moffitt gave me 15 of his own books to read while there which I then had to summarize upon returning. He allowed me to keep my favorite - one on the great depression because it gave me insight to my parents' lives as they lived through it. (Daddy graduated from PS in 1930, felt blessed that he got a teaching job that paid $400 a year & Mother's dessert was icing between graham crackers.) Instead of a thesis, I did oral exam- was 4 hours of questioning by 3 professors (2 history, 1 pol sci) of everything I had ever learned . Dr. Moffet was so proud of me, he called me into his office and told me to go on for a PhD at Ohio U, but with 3 children and the long commute, was impossible. He had polio at 16 and spent life with a leg brace and cane, yet stood throughout and exceeded work expectations. What a wonderful man.
Every successful man or woman who ever became famous, rich, admired was advanced by teachers. Yet they receive the riches and acclaim while teachers receive substandard pay., and at least in Florida and other red states, are treated like second class citizens. What a shameful thing.
My 8th grade teacher Otto Schmidt was a flamboyantly gay man who was a terrific teacher filled with sardonic comments & jokes
She demanded we use colored pens for Holidays (red for Valentine’s Day, green for St Pat’s)
Is most memorable slogan was, i”if in doubt throw it out!”
He recommended we honor everyone’s religion and take all holidays off so he didn’t have to work!
We loved him fiercely
I forgot to mention, my aunt Miss Ida Dennis, who taught school and became an elementary school principal in the Cleveland schools. Everyone knew her as "Miss Ida" she wrote social studies books she talk to me about travel and adventure, culture foods, farm cities, all of it, and she inspired me to explore the world throughout my life.
Kindergarten- Miss Bradford, she welcomed us to the lovely little classroom playhouse, and the bunny hutch-I had some trouble with math and reading, but a fifth grade elementary school teacher kept me after school a couple days a week for two months and cracked the code and unfortunately right this minute I cannot remember her name-middle School, Bernie Silk -social studies, civics & the magnificent trip to DC and Mrs. Goodwin -choir teacher. She loved us and we loved her. She invited us to her inner-city church choirs in Cleveland at Christmas and Easter to sing our little hearts out. I have an absolutely terrible voice, but my mom was one of the few moms with a car so that's how I got to be in Mrs. Goodwin's choir. High school: Robert Dober, English teacher extraordinaire. I still remember him jumping on the desk and acting out the storming of the Bastille. He taught us to read with a dictionary at hand, so we could look up every word, and taught us the value of etymology. He called high school pal Rosemary, whose nickname was ROE – "fish, eggs" for three years. High school science, Chauncey Shives, from the hills of Pennsylvania. He taught us to enjoy almost blowing up the chemistry lab and how to chop up a defensive little frog. He told us about the 10 year old Chauncey at yet another funeral, realizing he was the only male in the room and deciding right then & there to get an education and get the hell out of coal country. Ohio State University, English, Dr Jerome Kramer still a friend after 60 years -Spanish, Dr Richard Jackson -also still a friend and geology -Dr Robert Bates allowed me to take a graduate geology class, giving me undergraduate credit, in spite of protests by his professor pal who hated the idea of women in geology. and of course, Dr Eugene Ching -attempted to teach me Mandarin -appointed me head of the Chinese club, and years later afforded me an opportunity to teach English in Wuhan. I was never a great student, but I was enthusiastic and creative. I made lifelong friends of several former professors & teachers. After retirement, I took a class at Scottsdale community college from Dr. Shandrika Menior -Vegetarian Indian cooking!!
No one is ever too old to learn new skills! I have never forgotten these people and the impact they had on my life. I continue to sub teach and encourage students to use all of their creativity and abilities, and not be pigeonholed! Teachers ROCK!
Helen Gabriel, my French and Art teacher. She introduced me to a talent I didn't know I had and a love of the visual arts in all form. 55 years later, the passion remains. Thanks, Miss G.
I had some really great and some not-so-great teachers as I matriculated through the Detroit Public School System from kindergarten through 12th grade in the 50s and 60s. My 1st-grade teacher hated me, the only Black student in the class, and she never missed a chance to let me know she hated me. But my 2nd-grade teacher, Miss Pachurski, was absolutely wonderful. Miss Pachurski often put me in the middle of the class in one of those wooden chairs to read to the entire class. Because of her, I decided, as a little 6-year-old who the teacher knew was the best reader in the class, to be an English teacher. And that's exactly what happened. #EnglishMajorsRock
I was a marginal student at a direct grant school in the UK. Basically a private school with a few scholarships for people who had been to "council school" ( for poor people in general) as an elementary school. I was on such a scholarship as I had passed my "11 plus" . I loved music and art and hated latin. At the horrible school you could not do physics or chemistry if you studied music. Also you could not take English literature unless you failed latin 3 consecutive times... I almost made it. I had a biology teacher, Miss Jennings ,( we had no idea of the first names of our teachers) who made me finally be interested in education and scientific discovery. Basically it was botany but it was the first time I had ever been asked to think and been rewarded for doing so. Most people hated her but I was finally excited by something. Despite being in trouble a lot at this school she listened to one of my suggestions. I had many" detentions."...I thought it was a total waste of time to just copy out any book by hand for an hour. I suggested we did useful things like clean up trash or clean the laboratory benches and she did let us do that. Luckily for me was expelled . I had a very poor academic record. A new ( free) school treated me as a human being with a mind and potential and I was elected as Vice Head Girl ( by other girls)... I think they were hoping for someone to be head girl of vice. My new Headmistress wrote me a very kind review saying only that I had been a middle school rebel. I went on to become a doctor and finally began to love learning
I was lucky to have two in High School, that looking back really influenced my life. Edward Igell for AP History, and Herb Tanklow for English, both in Senior year. Ed Igell taught us how to think critically and not just read the history in our books. He challenged us and I learned more from him than just American History. Mr. Tanklow was the chair of the English Department, loved Shakespeare and got us to love him too. There are books I would not have read without his insistence to “Use that brain of yours, don’t just coast!” He was a treasure they both were.
My English teacher in 11th grade was patient and kind and so smart. One of the books he assigned was Catch-22. I cannot imagine what the reaction to that would be in too, too many districts today. He noticed things in each of us and treated each of us a little differently, as individuals.
Mr Turek was my sixth grade social studies teacher. He was young and passionate. He opened my mind to the world beyond my small town. He died suddenly the spring of that year. In music class his best friend played Mozart and we all wept together. Mr Turek was the first person to awaken my mind and the first person to introduce me to death. Seventy years later I can still see him gesturing in front of the class.
Growing up in the 1950s, graduating in 1962, the first teacher who comes to mind is "Problems of Democracy" teacher in my senior year. Mr. "Lupe" was aware of my animosity toward communism. He was clever to use "trigger" words to get me going. While I have forgotten those word exchanges from so long ago, I still feel his presence. Our class discussions were animated, respectful and energized.
The first two years of my undergrad degree were spent commuting on public transit from Morgan Park, on the far south side of Chicago, to UIC (University of Chicago at Illinois). The commute was through some of the most impoverished areas of Englewood/Gresham and past the notorious Robert Taylor high rise public housing (since torn down). Richard J. Daley was mayor then. This commute had a life-long impression on me. At UIC the professor who influenced me the most was the late Gilbert Osofsky. His books were: "Harlem the Making of a Ghetto", and "The Burden of Race". I still have these books. I still hear his voice sometimes. There is now an endowed chair in memory of Professor Osofsky at UIC. Relatives felt the turmoil of Chicago in the early 1970's was too much for me. I then transferred to a small private college in Northern California where I completed my undergrad degree in History, specializing in Emancipation and Reconstruction. Most of the books in my library are books about Black History and Civil Rights.
My high school debate and drama teacher helped me overcome a fear of speaking in front of a group. Without that my career as a teacher, school director and parent educator wouldn’t have happened. And the amazing Astronomy prof at a local community college not only taught wonderful astronomy courses but taught a “physics for poets” course which honestly changed my life in my fifties. Good teachers change lives for the better!
I grew up in a famous public school system but I had terrible teachers until my sophomore hs English teacher, John Cooke. Until then, I had been either a disruption or so-so. He was the first teacher to see something more in my; I thrived and loved him to death for his belief in me. Two teachers who shaped my career direction in college were Harry Gaugh and Manuel Lemakis. Mr. Gaugh was one of the most demanding teachers I had and challenged students to excel. I tutored his failing students and always brought their grades up from Ds to Bs between midterms and finals; it was then that I realized I had a talent for art history. Mr. Lemakis confounded me totally but once I adapted to his teaching style it unlocked all kinds of approaches and riches; again with both of these teachers, it was their faith in me that made the difference. Maybe the toughest in any subject but who was an effervescent personality was my first-year German teacher in college, Helga Dublin. She knew everything about everything; she found out why you were taking German (most of us as a grad school requirement) and then made you give a lecture in the class about something in your field of study--in first year German! Wonderful woman.
The easy, fun teachers may make the class hour go fast but it is the ones that require you to dig deeper and really plumb the depths of my talents that shaped me. I had some famous authorities teach me in graduate school and they were all, uniformly, disappointing and I learned less than I'd hoped. I am so grateful for the handful of outstanding teachers I had in hs and college.
I was so impacted by Dr. Max Sobel that I wrote this article detailing how special he was and how he changed the trajectory of my life: https://tinyurl.com/aud-teacher
Two teachers stand out though I think I and we were lucky we had such good and dedicated teachers in a small town in NW Ohio
Mr loader in history who awakened my love of history. He taught us that history is stories of people and not dates and events. Took us to our local civil war museum and had veterans of WW2 come give us talks of their experiences
Mrs. Gillespie in English that taught us the love of reading. She used to say reading is an opportunity to experience other places times and people.
To this day I read all the time no matter how late I finish work I hv to read a few pages before bed
Much of what I read are histories
Walter Raushenbush was a law professor of mine at the University of Wisconsin. He dominated the stage. He taught me how to simplify--how to sort through hundreds of pages of cases to make understandable arguments. We reunited when I found him teaching spring semester at a law school in California where our daughter was in undergraduate school. I admired him immensely.
My theatre director my freshman year in college. He taught me to see life through the eyes of a character in a script. He taught me empathy for a character who came to life through me but represented many. He taught me to let my imagination soar.
1969 - 10th grade Biology teacher Mr. Lloyd F. Coeditor of a national Biology text. Sponsored the Science Fair student work. West Virginia. When I won the Regional Science Fair, he drove me from West Virginia to New Orleans, May 1972.
In a 63 pickup truck. He was a 50s Navy gold glove boxer. Always happy and encouraging. And he would give feedback. Personal. The Adult in my life. Integrity. Curiosity. Fairness.
Several teachers gave me so much that I remember 60 years later: Mrs. Culp ( 2nd grade) I think really inspired me to read; Mrs. Grillo (7th grade) who helped me to write; Miss Iafrate (also 7th grade) who taught me to respect other religions and cultures; Mr. Amore (12th grade) who got me started on philosophy and psychology. In college, Dr. David Wulff and Alexander Sergeivich Golubov stand out among the finest people I've ever known.
My world history teacher, Mrs. Sherman. She inspires a love of learning and curiosity about the world that has never abated, even over four decades later.
In 1966 I was packed off to a Catholic women's college to look after my sister who was having problems and I didn't like it. I felt suffocated as we drove onto the campus of Marygrove College in Detroit, anticipating a continuation of "the nuns." It turned out, though, that these nuns, the IHMs, were different. Within the first weeks on campus we were visited by the poet Gary Snyder, the composer John Cage, and Saul Alinsky, and exposed to "art films" condemned by the Legion of Decency. The parade of artists, poets, and thinkers continued. We were nudged into activism, opposing police brutality, joining the Poor Peoples March, and advocating for peace. Coursework made clear the systemic causes of injustice. The sisters were determined to rid us of any parochial complacency we brought and replace it with an open imagination and a dedicated social conscience. They made clear our education required something of us. What an education! Of course, most of us ended up in serving professions unable to be big donors and the college closed four years ago. The IHMs continue their fiercely progressive involvements and I'm ever grateful to them for their transformative gifts.
My sixth grade home room teacher Mr Udall was a teacher who had a big impact on my life. I suddenly started writing with a backhand slant and one day Mr. Udall asked me to stay after school so he could talk to me for a few minutes. He wanted to know why
I started writing that way. I told him my aunt wrote
that way and I thought it was pretty. He then asked me if my aunt was left-handed. She was, so he explained why her writing had a backward slant. He
advised me to not try to be like someone else, but to be who I am, and if that meant I naturally wrote a certain way then that’s how I should write.
On another occasion he again asked me to stay after
school. I had flunked a test. He said he knew that I knew the material on the test and asked if I deliberately flunked it. I did, I explained that my older sister didn’t like school and didn’t get very good grades, so when I brought my report card home for my parents to sign and they praised me for getting good grades, she would treat me very badly,
and it was so upsetting that I dreaded bringing my report card home. I wanted to flunk because at that age that was the only way I could think of to get my sister to stop. So he reminded me to be who I am no matter what the circumstances were, including doing my best on every test I took because that was more important than what anyone else thought, including my sister. He also talked to my parents about it and from that day going forward my parents would look at my report card, sign it and give in back to me in complete silence...and I was grateful for that.
Mr. Udall’s advice seems very simplistic all of these decades later, but in retrospect it had a very big impact on me for the rest of my life.
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Utlaut, tossed the usual reader and assigned us real books to read, the most memorable being “The Red Pony,” by John Steinbeck. Can’t imagine what they would do in Florida to a teacher who did that. It was just one of many ways she made that year in school wonderful.
My teachers were the poor working class trying to make a living on the lower East Side of New York in the 1940s during and then after the War. My uneducated dad was not regularly employed except during the war when all sorts of jobs opened up in the shipyards in Brooklyn but mostly went away afterwards. When we had money the big treat was to go to the movies on Sunday afternoon on Broadway and to eat lunch at a fast food place or a deli! What the whole experience taught me was that ordinary immigrant families barely paid the rent while there were other folks driving in cars and living on Long Island, we thought, in “luxury.” The only way out for us was for me and other “smarty pants” to go to college to be a doctor or a lawyer or to work at a desk for somebody else. The lessons learned the hard way was that Republicans were rich who “owned us” (other than the gangsters, doctors, lawyers and accountants) and all the rest of us were happy if we had enough money to go to movies. Hard lessons learned in life from our “teachers” on the streets!
Steven Beschloss has asked a wonderful question, one that opened up the doors of my memory in the most delightful way. "What teachers influenced you the most—and why?"
Sorry to be late to the party, Steven. I'm a full-time caregiver so I can only write in the interstitial spaces, but the act of writing keeps me sane.
Despite being schooled in a flyspeck cowtown on the high plains of Texas during the heyday of the John Birch Society, I was blessed with many truly dedicated, caring, and open-minded teachers. They were a bit like tugboats, nudging me this way and that toward safe harbor. And even 60 years on, I remember most of their names (not counting the coaches, who were pressed into service to teach things like Health, in Junior High, or Civics - remember "Civics? - in High School.) The curvaceous Molly Puckett for Biology, who graced many a teenaged boy's fantasies ... and jokes. Ms. Douglas, who inspired in me a lifelong love of literature. The Art teacher - and my private violin teacher - Mrs. Brantley, who was a dead ringer for Jackie Kennedy and the most sophisticated woman for miles around. But most of all, Mrs. Graham, who taught World History. She had been a WAC sergeant and was the toughest teacher in school. There was no foolishness in her class. I learned to love the study of history - an almost lifelong (so far) passion - and I basked in her reluctant admission at year's end that I was, after all, a good student. My GPA of 99 made it hard to argue, but still I appreciated her acknowledgement. There were fewer than 100 of us in the Class of '65, so class sizes were small, and the town itself was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, and that included our teachers. Misbehavior was quickly outed.
It was at college, though, that I met teachers who would do more than just keep me on the right side of the law and give me a love of learning. I met life-changing thinkers dedicated to making me think. I doubled in Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas in Austin, which was, in those halcyon days, the only University of Texas campus, apart from the Med School in Galveston. Sam Houston had embedded the university in the state constitution and made it the sole beneficiary of all of Texas's state lands, millions of acres of useless dirt. Under which, it turned out much later, were millions of barrels of oil. And that spigot funded UT. I paid negligible tuition and fees and took no loans. The university, styling itself as "Harvard on the Range," bought the best minds in the country who were willing to relocate to Austin. And in the late 60s, that made the Philosophy Department the best in the country, and the Classics Department second only to Princeton's. Small classes. Great minds. Talented students.
First, though, I had to get past the physical and psychological effects of the first campus mass murder in what has become an ever lengthening list of them, stretching from the University of Texas on August 1, 1966 to Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Uvalde, and on and on. The day of the Tower Shooting was my first day back on campus for my sophomore year. Hell of a way to start the day. I was there. See my Substack article, The Things He Carried, for the gruesome details.
Professor David Armstrong was my faculty advisor. He was fluent in both Latin and Greek and could translate on the fly. He was also my advisor for an independent study program that ran for almost a year, focussed entirely on James Joyce's "Ulysses," allowing me to develop, write, and defend an entirely novel theory about how to understand it. I later lost my only copy to the chaos of a hippie co-op in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. So ended my best chance for being published by Oxford University Press.
But the most enduring and life-changing lesson for me was contained in only 18 words scrawled across the top of a paper I'd written for an Ethics class, a paper I was confident would mark me as a world-class thinker and fly from the professor's hand straight to the editors of JSTOR, the venerable Journal of Philosophy.
Now, Ethics, in the context of Academic Philosophy, is not to be confused with the sort of applied ethics common to B-schools, law schools, and the study of medicine. It is the study of right and wrong, good and bad, and is a thread stretching back to Aristotle and Plato, and through every subsequent school of Philosophy down to the present day. It is foundational. And I delivered an essay that I believed extended that line of thought in creative new directions. I waited eagerly for the judgement of my professor.
My paper was returned with the grade of B+. I was devastated. Across the top of the page he had written the following: "Take care that you do not allow your rhetorical facility to obscure matters which are rational and cogent."
Translation: You can't bullshit your way through philosophy, Kid.
That bit of comeuppance stung like a scorpion. I was hurt, humiliated, discouraged. I was angry. But the lesson stuck with me and made me a better thinker, a better writer, and a more honest and reflective man. What more could one ask of a teacher? And here's the irony. I can't remember his name. I remember my first grade teacher in Santa Fe, Mrs. McDonald. I remember my ancient high school geometry teacher's name, Ray Wells. But the name of the author of the most important 18 words in my educational journey I have misplaced, even though I remember his words verbatim more than 50 years later.
p.s. The UT Department of Philosophy in those days was commanded by its department chair, John Silber, assisted by his acolyte, Bill Bennett, later Reagan's Secretary of Education and one of the country's leading hypocrites. Nil nisi bonum, and all that, but the man was a spectacular ass who well-reflected the proclivities of his mentor. They would both have done well to follow the advice of the same 18 words that have guided me since.
Fourth grade teacher Mrs. Burkhouse. I’m her classroom after we were done with our seat work, we were allowed to READ! I became acquainted with Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott and so many others. The room had windows on three sides. Mrs. Burkhouse was a short portly woman with thick glasses. I learned to love to read in her class. It was the prelude to my life!
My grandparents and great-grandparents included teachers. Both of my parents were teachers. Both of my children are teachers. Two of my siblings are or were teachers. I am a teacher. I owe part of my heart, a lot of my brain, and most of my soul to my teachers. They believed in me, inspired me, coached me, challenged me, mentored me, and modeled empathy and selflessness for me.
!n 1970, in 7th grade, I had a homeroom/English teacher by the name of Jerry Dale. Mr. Dale was a Major League umpire (who had to work in the off season to make ends meet). To this day, I believe he is the most honorable and honest man I have ever met. Being in love with everything about baseball ( and the Los Angeles Dodgers), it was easy for me to like him. Over the 5 months he was my teacher (spring training begins in early February), he taught me how to live life as an truthful, trusting, and honorable person, as being a MLB umpire is an honorable position. I still remember his story of working Chicago Cubs games when the Wrigley (gum) family owned the team. Every game, there would be boxes of Wrigley gum in the umpire's lockers, Some would take the gum, Jerry Dale never did.
More importantly, he taught me how to live an ethical life. Not an easy task for a kid who's family business was selling used cars. I looked him up not long ago and discovered that he owns a photo safari and winery in South Africa. My wife and I are going.
After reading Plato and Machiavelli in a high school sophomore course with Alan Peshkin who went on to become a professor at the U of Illinois and Stanford, a right wing teacher in my junior year wrote "Is this your work?" on a paper. So much for trusting the establishment.
Dr. Egbert! My Ph.D. Advisor! I don’t even know where to begin!! He was so instrumental in change across the US (HeadStart/Perry PreSchool Project) Brazil and many others, but his prominence was unknown to me. A colleague introduced us. How? How was I someone he chose to mentor? Unknown!!! And I will never know!!! He was the epitome of an educator! He never directly changed anything I said or wrote or thought; I learned the art of questioning because that’s how he taught and led! Open ended questions, one after the other! Humble! And such an amazing leader! Teacher, yes! Ultimate psychologist! Humans cannot learn if the content is too far above their levels of development. He found Korean soldiers lapsed into pre-operational behavior (newborn behavior). None would’ve learned anything because of absolute fear.
I use this in everyday life both in my own personal and in working with others. I’m not sure this makes sense; I just know I was at such a low developmental level when I met him and now can function at a fairly high level unless I am hungry, fearful, in danger, etc! Don’t you think these are valuable to understand as we interact with others in our life!!!
I have no idea whether or not this conveys to others; but know he was the greatest influence/teacher in my life! Thank you Dr. Egbert!