As an Army brat, I attended 15 schools in 12 years. (16 schools if you include the night classes that I took at the local community college during my senior year in high school.) Most of the teachers that I had were pretty good but most never left any major impressions on me. Weirdly, I remember most of my teachers names from the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DODDS) that I attended. But the teachers that I had in the U.S. are a mere blur. With the exception of Sister Carita Ulm, my kindergarten teacher from Rosenburg, Texas, who taught me to read, and Sister Mary Katherine, my 2nd grade teacher, from El Paso, Texas, who I really only remember because she nearly clawed my arms off from the elbows down because I kicked some boy named Raul off of the top of the slide for looking up my skirt while I was in line in front of him. I don’t know why I remember all of my DODDS teachers so much better than the civilian school teachers. I remember Mrs. Ball, 8th grade Social Studies teacher from Ozark, Alabama because she smelled like cigarettes and Dentyne gum. And Mr. Ken Korn, my 7th grade speech teacher from El Paso, Texas. I liked Mr. Korn because he was actually a good teacher and demanded our respect in his class. He also said that the word was not BECUZZZZZ but “beCAUSE…rhymes with JAWS.” Oh, and Mr. Whitaker, from my 7th grade Talented and Gifted class in El Paso. Mr. Whitaker made an impression because he worked us do death mathematically and because we got to design cool bridges made mostly out of toothpicks which we then destroyed by hanging weights off of them. Mine, of course, was the first one to snap in half. Most of the other teachers in El Paso were known only as “Mees” and “Meester”, even by us anglo kids. I always wondered if any of them had surnames.
I remember the DODDS teachers most, I think, because they actually challenged us to think and to problem solve. Even the really crappy teachers still had an edge over most of the ones that I had in the civilian world. (With the exception of 3rd grade on Fort Bliss…if I had had an orangutan for a teacher in that class I couldn’t tell you, it was THAT memorable a school.) Anyway, what got me thinking about teachers vs. GREAT teachers was that movie from 1988, “Stand and Deliver” starring Edward James Olmos as a math teacher, Jaime Escalante, who decided to challenge the kids in his Garfield High School class to learn calculus and take the Advanced Placement exam. It was like a lot of the “based on a true story” movies showing how disadvantaged kids in East Los Angeles, when given a teacher who gives a damn and works to get and keep their attention while still earning their respect, can overcome all odds and get themselves on the right educational track. Other examples are “Freedom Writers” with Hillary Swank, “Race the Sun” with Halle Berry and James Belushi, and “Dangerous Minds” with Michelle Pfeiffer. All are loosely based on true stories. All seem to indicate only one teacher in an entire high school full of teachers gives a damn. Wow. Our public education system must REALLY suck.
At Stuttgart American High School, which was located in Ludwigsburg, Germany just outside of Stuttgart, the opposite was true. For every average teacher I had in a 6-period day, I had 4 really good ones and one who stood out among the rest. My freshman year, my favorite teacher was Mr. Pike in Biology. He was corny and funny and smart and challenged us and made us laugh and think and expected 150% in all of his classes. My sophomore year, my favorite teacher was Dr. S.E. Lewis, Honors English. He was a little flighty and we could play some whopper practical jokes on him. But he challenged us with reading assignments and made us dig deep into Shakespeare and I swear I read more than 30 books that year alone in his class. My junior year, I had two favorite teachers. Mrs. Bourland was my Honors English teacher and she was tough with her reading lists and composition assignments. She inspired my love of the American authrs like Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Poe. She was 10 times stricter about the term papers she assigned than Dr. Lewis was the year before. But she was compassionate toward me when I almost lost my mom to cancer that year. Mr. Mazzei was also a favorite that year. In his humanities class, I was introduced to art and architecture in history and it made all of those boring old history classes that I’d had for years make sense to me. I fell in love with the flying buttresses of Gothic architecture and did two term papers for him on two different cathedrals in the town I where I lived. My overseas education in DODDS schools really made me a deeply cultured person.
When we returned to the US, my dad was stationed at an airfield on Fort Meade, Maryland and my sister and I were enrolled in Meade Senior High School. This is actually a county school that happens to be on post. But I think we lucked out and ended up with some pretty good teachers there, too. My absolute favorite teacher there was Ms. Patty Diaz (she married after I graduated but I don’t know her new last name.) She was my dance teacher and introduced us to contemporary/modern dance. It was a great release for me with all the stress I was going through at home. Ms. Diaz was laid back and creative and cool, but still demanded our attention and respect. As for academics, I had a few favorites. Mr. Bill Shepard was my speech teacher and he was also the faculty adviser for the school newspaper. When Mr. Shepard heard about my mom being terminal with cancer, he asked me to write an article about it for the school paper. I did, but anonymously. Being in high school is hard enough without everyone staring at you for the added reason of your mom dying in order to point and call you a freak. Then there was Mrs. Sharp, my Algebra II teacher who was very good at explaining the tougher points while still keeping a little sarcastic wit for those who were not paying attention. And then there was Mr. Pelham. I was in his Advanced Placement English class for seemingly 5 minutes before I got moved to a different class because my dad insisted that I drop Sociology and re-take Algebra II that I’d passed in Germany with a ‘C’. (Dad’s reasoning was that if I’d made a ‘C’ the first time around, that I could easily make a ‘B’ or even an ‘A’ the second time around. That’s how I met Mrs. Sharp. And as great a teacher as she was, I still made another ‘C’ in Algebra II. I think I just didn’t want to be there….I digress.)
Mr. Pelham seemed to be going through some changes in 1985. I didn’t know him before that class. So, I guess I’m the last to judge. But he seemed sort of disillusioned with American youth. In my first week in his class he said something that didn’t sit right with me. He said that “Americans have no culture at all.” Of course, most of the class took issue with this statement and began calling out various things that they thought made them “cultured.” Sadly, I began to see what he was talking about. Pretty much, most of the stuff that my classmates used as examples were things from Elvis Presley’s era until present…well, present-day 1985. I guess those of us who had gone to school overseas and visited places like the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, skied the Alps of Bavaria and Switzerland, visited Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam, and touched the walls of the shower rooms and smelled the stench of the crematorium still present at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany could be the exception to his rule. I still liked Elvis Presley and Jazz and hamburgers and pizza, though. So maybe Mr. Pelham was right and I was uncultured. Whatever. He made an impression on me. He was an excellent English teacher, even if I was only in his class a brief time. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t dropped his class. The nameless, faceless English teacher I ended up with now falls into the “blur pit” of other civilian world teachers that I had throughout my years in school.
But I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those teachers who have made a difference in the lives of their students. Teachers who challenge their students to think, to take that nearly but not absolutely impossible first step toward self-improvement, to go further than they thought possible, and to THINK for themselves….these are our true heroes. Thank you, Sister Carita, Mr. Korn, Mr. Whitaker, Mr. Pike, Dr. Lewis, Mrs. Bourland, Mr. Mazzei, Ms. Diaz, Mr. Shepard, and Mr. Pelham. You helped shape me.