With a new school year about to begin, I have been thinking about my own school days. I thought I came out of high school well educated for an eighteen-year-old, but I quickly learned otherwise at college. Those who had gone to top secondary schools such as New Trier or Stuyvesant or elite prep schools were much better prepared for college than I. Mine was a good basic education. I knew a lot of history, for example, but much of that was merely dates and names. I had not been challenged to think about historical causes, trends, or ramifications. I could excellently summarize the classic novels I had been assigned, but I could not probe them for any deeper resonances or cogently assess what made some books better than others. And so on. Even though many of my college classmates brought more to their study than I did, I was arrogant enough about my own intelligence to think that they were not smarter than I was. I thought that I could catch up and outdo most of them, but it took a while and a lot of effort.
What hurt the most, however, was my writing ability. I admired writers and thought I wanted to be one. My high school writing assignments always came back with an “A” and a note or two of praise. I was a natural I thought. My hopes were dashed when my first college paper was returned with a bold, underlined “You can’t write!” I examined what I had turned in, and I realized that my professor was right. I took as many courses as I could that forced me to write, and I started to read books about how to write, something I have continued for most of my life. After much practice and study, I was able to write competent, clear, and succinct prose, but it still required a good deal of effort. Writing still does not come easily, but I take pride in many of the things that I have written, which, as a lawyer and an academic, has been a lot. I am never the stylist I would like to be, but I keep trying.
Looking back, however, I have realized that, while my secondary education could have been better, the fact that I was able to learn and catch up with my colleagues came at least partly from good, caring elementary school teachers. I benefited from the few opportunities that women had when I was young. Bright working women at that time disproportionately went into school teaching because only nursing and secretarial work seemed possible as other career choices. More on them in a moment.
My first male teacher didn’t appear until the seventh grade when I had Mr. Cutting for social studies. (In high school I had more male teachers. The math teacher was excellent; the English teacher was good; a physics teacher was bad; and the German teacher was awful.) I liked Mr. Cutting even though I don’t remember much about his classes. An old friend remembers Weekly Reader quizzes on which she shined. I do recall his reaction the day after Sputnik’s launch when he said that the United States was no longer the leader of civilization. I did not understand that, but I did grasp that the Russian entrance into space was a monumental event.
I remember Mr. Cutting more on a personal level. He was a member of the First Baptist Church I attended. (There was no Second Baptist Church or any other American Baptist Church in town, but we were still the First.) The church was small, but I don’t think I ever saw him in attendance. Our membership in the same church, though, may have been why he went out his way for me. He got me several parttime jobs that a youthful boy who did not like to work could handle. He helped me learn how to thread and operate the school’s film projector. After having mastered those mechanical skills, he asked me to man (boy?) the projector at the Masonic Lodge where he was a member. No embarrassments come to mind as a result, so everything must have proceeded smoothly.
Another teacher at about the same time also reached out to me to do some work. Miss Bass was like other teachers who seemed old and not quite human to me. She lived in an apartment near the waterfront and hired me to wash her walls. (In this town of one- and two-family homes, this was the first time I had been in an apartment building.) It made me very nervous. I did not talk easily around adults, but she regaled me with stories about the trips she and other teachers took during vacations. I realized for the first time that teachers might have a life outside a classroom–a life, in fact that might be quite interesting. Nevertheless, it came as a shock that teachers had any life, any existence, when they weren’t in school. P.S. I also learned to start wall-washing at the bottom so that soapy water near the ceiling would not leave streaks as it ran down the wall.
I was sometimes asked to stay after school to clap clean the blackboard erasers in the school yard. One time upon bringing them back, my first-grade teacher told me that she was getting married during the summer and would not be returning to teach the next year. I never had a Mrs. Teacher; all the women teachers were single. (In some school systems in those days, married women were excluded from the profession. I don’t know if that was true in my town.) She then showed me a photo of her in a bathing suit. This perhaps could get her fired today. I did not tell anyone about it, maybe because I did not fully understand my reaction to the picture. She was awfully good-looking in that bathing costume.
Sixth grade was, in retrospect, the one most important to me. Before that year, school simply filled up part of the day. I did fine, but in sixth grade I felt for the first time that I wanted to learn and that I could learn. That had a lot to do with the teacher, Miss (of course) Ebba Dahlberg. I don’t remember anything particular that she taught me, but she imparted a desire to learn and somehow an ability to learn. (And yes, she had a life apart from the classroom. I did not know what to think about the fact that she had been in a women’s branch of the armed forces in World War II and had parachuted out of airplanes!) She also went out of her way for me. She saw that I was a reader and perhaps knew that there were few books in my house. She seemed also to understand that there was little left for me to explore in the children’s section of the Mead Public Library. One day Miss Dahlberg took me to the library to talk with the librarians. Miss Dahlberg convinced them that I should be able to use the adult section of the library. After that I got adult “privileges,” which Miss Dahlberg noted to me in a whisper should be a secret from others. This is not something that was part of her duties, but it opened up worlds for me. Later on, as an adult, I found her address in the upstate town where she had retired and wrote her a letter thanking her. She probably had no idea who I was, but in her reply she was grateful that I remembered that she wrote on the blackboard with yellow chalk, which she had purchased out of her own funds and used because she thought the students could see it better.
Looking back at my education, I realize that my secondary schooling did not prepare me for college as well as I might have hoped. On the other hand, before that, teachers, without my being fully aware of it, taught me how to learn, and that has served me well my entire life. That gift came from bright and caring teachers. I am so thankful for the good teachers that I had. And I know that there are still many all around this country. It’s a reason why we need to support them and our schools.