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Monday, February 26, 2007

The Road to Nerdom, pt I: The Big O

Last week, metaphorical posted (and beautifully so) about mathematics professor Erich Friedman's site devoted to numerical arcana. As a recreational math nerd, I find the site delightful on its own merits, and as metaphorical argues, it is a powerful proof-of-concept for the kind of communication we're engaging in. But in a tribute to the lateral thinking the page embodies, metaphorical's entry has inspired me to memoir. In other words: Blame him for this.

In Jane Eyre, Jane gives this rather underwhelming description of her pupil, Adele:
She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it.

With few exceptions, that's how I felt about most of my teachers before high school. If I had to choose a favorite, I suppose I'd pick Ms. O, who was my homeroom teacher in both 5th and 7th grades. In 5th grade, she was responsible for teaching us language arts (English, more or less), religion, art, spelling, and science, plus she was the social studies (sort of geography, history, and protoanthropology combined) teacher for us as well as for the other two classrooms of 5th graders. In 7th grade, she was relieved of duty for English (for which we "changed classes"), but inherited responsibility for reading and maintained all other duties.

When I think about Ms. O and why I characterize her as a favorite, it's hard to put my finger on why she holds that place. There are certain superficial things that, no doubt, influence some of my perceptions: She was pretty and younger by several decades than most of the teachers I had, and therefore less hidebound. But I also believe that she was simply a more actively kind human being than I'd experienced before. In first and third grades, I'd had brushes with nightmare teachers, labeling, and so on. In third grade, in particular, we spent all day with the same homeroom teacher for all subjects. My teacher hated me. (If that sounds melodramatic, please believe it is the softest, most even-handed language that I can use that I think retains any truth). Ms. O liked me, not especially or in any way that singled me out, but liked being around kids, including me, and she liked teaching them.

As a teacher, Ms. O was something of a mixed bag. As kind as she was as a rule, I recall instances in which she was angry with us as a class (mostly for behavior-related reasons, in this case, primarily talking when we weren't supposed to) and wouldn't speak to us for days. It also didn't take me too long to realize that she was not very well informed and probably not particularly well-qualified for teaching any particular subject in depth. To this day, I have to mentally correct my pronunciation from "Appottomax" to "Appomattox," because she taught it to us incorrectly. Not that pronunciation is the be all and end all of knowledge, but unfamiliarity with that pronunciation speaks to one's qualifications to teach what was, in large part, American history that year. (Of course Ms. O's sins are not even worth mentioning in the context of those perpetrated upon me in the course of history education.)

But what Ms. O lacked in specialist knowledge, she at least partially made up for in teaching style. I remember her as an adventurous teacher who was willing to take us off the beaten path to learning. For example, I remember in 5th grade social studies, an argument broke out between me and my long-term crush/eternal nemesis MH regarding whether soil or climate was more critical to plant growth. We both had taken an "as any idiot can tell you" approach to this absolutely-vital-to-any-10-year-old question and were soon staring daggers at one another.

MH and I were nemeses created, not nemeses by nature. We were the two smartest kids in our grade and arguably the two smartest in the school at that time. (Um, can we just pretend that I've qualified this statement in some appropriately modest way that doesn't make me sound like a supervillain waiting to happen?) Although we consistently performed almost exactly the same on all tests, standardized and nonstandardized, it was Well Known that MH was very good at math and science (because [paging Hippo Dignity to the gender-neutral-colored courtesy phone] that's what boys are good at) and I was very good at English and reading (because that's what girls are good at). (I will take a stab at real generosity and modesty here and point out that, although he also sucked at art, he sucked less than I did, and I won't even point out that there are blind hedgehogs in bags clinging to the intestines of the ape creatures of the Indus who are better at anything artistic than I am.) In fact, this was so well known that I was excluded from a very exclusive accelerated math program in 8th grade until one of the boys was kicked out as punishment for bad behavior. Anyway, being so blinded my oppression that I directed my anger at my fellow oppressed, I pegged MH as my nemesis and he returned the favor.

Ms. O, not being brain dead or obtuse by choice, knew that both MH and I were bored to tears nearly 100% of the time in school. So when she was faced with the two of us, on the very verge of pistols at dawn over the issue of soil v. climate, she ran with it and suggested that we have a debate on the topic. MH and I were captains of team climate and team soil, respectively. We were each allowed to choose three teammates, and we had a week to gather data for our case. Without being overly rigid on the rules, she introduced us to them and taught us about argument, rhetoric, dirty linguistic tricks, and how to think ahead and think on the fly. It was such a big hit that there was demand for other debates with other captains and teams throughout the year.

In 7th grade, she again noticed that there was a small, but growing posse of unabashedly smart and nerdy folk (in HS, an older neighbor once asked me, "How did you manage to make smart . . . well, not cool . . . but at least not grounds for assault?"). I'm not sure she was as much concerned about our intellectual growth as she was worried how much trouble we might be if left entirely to ourselves. So she took a bunch of incipient slackers who had been coasting on their ability to paraphrase, rather than rip off more directly, encyclopedia articles for 7 years and assigned them a group term paper on Hitler's rise to power.

One could argue that she then hung us out to dry a bit. She gave us a week to come back with sources, shot said source list all to hell with words like "bias," "crank," "agenda," and "fiction!!!" (circled many times in red), only then telling us about things like the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, journal articles, and peer review. She allowed that random facts, such as the predisposition of Nazi scientists to experiment of midgets and twins, or the tendency of Hitler's closest allies to be Catholic (in the interests of protecting the identity of the innocent, I will only say that the school was named for one of the Blessed Virgin's crossover stellar/maritime incarnations), were interesting in a "gee whiz!" sort of way, but did not actually constitute an argument, and only then did she introduce us to the concept of a thesis statement. She pushed us and challenged us to think and to express our ideas in persuasive ways. I think it was the first time that any of us had someone hold us to a standard that we couldn't meet simply by having a pulse.

It's odd, this entry started out being about my two favorite HS teachers, who happen to have been married to one another. I still want to write about them, amazing individuals worthy of much more unqualified praise and gratitude that they are, but I kind of like this one being about Ms. O alone. I think I've gotten in the habit of thinking of her as the first person I encountered in my education who was simply neurotic, rather than actively psychotic, but she apparently deserves better. Here's to you, Ms. O, wherever you may be.

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