Archive for January 17th, 2012

NaBloPoMo prompt:  “Tell us about your first teacher who was important to you.”

The most important teacher in my life, Peter Bochow, used to say:  “He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.  He who can’t teach, teaches teachers.”  As he was, at the time, engaged in teaching teachers, this was a shot at himself, and very funny he found it.  I have blogged elsewhere about him, and he will forever be enshrined in my mind as the most gifted teacher I ever had.

But the first one who was important to me, aside from the obvious “first teachers” of parents, grandparents, and the whole broad scope of relatives, was my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Agnes Therese.  Isn’t that sad, that no teacher really touched my life until eighth grade?  But I blogged recently about the Catholic-school experience and its attendant horrors; although Sister Agnes Therese wasn’t the only one, or even the first one, not to engage in wholesale abuse, the others just didn’t have the same impact on my life.  For Sister Agnes Therese had three things going for her:  She was built like a tank; she was absolutely unflappable; and she had a phenomenal sense of humor.

When I say she was built like a tank, I mean just that:  tall, square, shoulders like a linebacker, she looked like she belonged on a farm, hefting bales of hay or rassling with cattle.  I remember telling my mother, on the first day of school that year, that she looked like an admiral.  In other words, she was perfect for the sixty eighth-graders she taught; you’d think twice about messing with her.  Yet…there was just something about her mouth, as if she could barely contain an inner bubble of laughter that was fed by her rambunctious crew.  When we got to be too much for her, she would just shake her head.  “You people,” she would say, in a resigned tone that settled us right down.  Or, “Boy, oh man.”  (I’ve heard of “Boy, oh boy,” and “Man, oh man,” but that particular combination was hers alone.)

She also contributed to my vocabulary a phrase that I use to this day:  “Use your head for more than a hatrack.”  It was classic Brooklyn English, and much more effective than screaming, “Do you people ever think?!” as our seventh-grade teacher used to do.  “Use your head for more than a hatrack” is something I passed on to my own two children, and they understood it as I did:  Someone whose brain was functioning on auto-pilot, or who wasn’t exercising “the little grey cells” up to capacity (hat tip to Agatha Christie and her fictional character, Hercule Poirot).

Eighth grade is a horrible time of life anyway.  Female hormones have half the class in a grip, while male hormones are still blissfully unaware of the opposite sex, and boys think that an acceptable way of telling a girl she’s “all right” is to put slimy things in her desk, or pelt her with ice balls on the way home from school.  I can’t imagine trying to cram any kind of knowledge into the brains of eighth-graders, and truth to tell, I can’t recall a single thing I learned in eighth grade; it was mostly a refinement of things we had already learned, polishing our grammar, adding details to whatever we knew of history and geography (which at the time had yet to be morphed into “Social Studies”), preparing us to go into the wider world as good (Catholic) “soldiers of Christ.”  Science was never a strong point of Catholic schools, so that wasn’t even on the radar screen, though I do recall a bare-bones introduction to physics.  Forget math.  It was definitely taught, and probably there were new things taught, but the whole notion of numbers was so intimidating to me that it wasn’t till I was forty years old that it began to occur to me that I might actually be able to handle accounting – since all it is, is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the odd bit of division here and there.

So why was Sister Agnes Therese so memorable?  Probably because, in an atmosphere that can still strike terror into an entire generation of Catholics, she never once resorted to terror.  Her weapons were Calm and Humor, an unbeatable combination.  I never got the chance to tell her so; she was out of my life as soon as I left that hellhole, and by the time it began to dawn on me just how much of an impact she had had on my life, she had passed on to her eternal reward.  I hope it is free of horrible little eighth-graders.  I hope she is enjoying many fruits of her life as a Bride of Christ.  May her memory be eternal!

Read Full Post »