A Hard Lesson to Learn
by, 09-17-2018 at 02:10 PM (478 Views)
A Hard Lesson to Learn
It has been more than 30 years ago since I graduated high school. In my senior year, my last semester, I needed an English credit, so I took “Creative Writing.” Now this class had prerequisites that made it impossible for a freshman or sophomore to take it. It was mostly seniors, with a few ambitious juniors, and all of those seniors were firmly in the grips of “senioritis.” We were already thinking about our plans after we graduated, and we were beginning to chaff at being moved about by Pavlovian bells, teachers and administrators telling us what to do, and all that comes with being arrogant, ignorant, and 17. Also, the class was close to the end of the day, so in the short-term, we were looking forward to being free to enjoy the rest of our days of relative freedom, as winter became spring. I say this not to excuse what I did, but, hopefully, to explain it.
To my best knowledge, our teacher, Mrs. Bentley, had been a substitute teacher when we were freshman and sophomores, then she got a full-time job teaching middle school, before she was able to reach her dream of teaching high school English. Knowing what I now know about the teaching profession, I’m certain that she got slotted for the Creative Writing course for precisely the reason I mentioned above: none of the established English teachers at my high school wanted to deal with a class made up of mostly seniors who were on the way out and looking for an easy “A” to pad their GPAs. She was the “newbie,” so she got the classes none of the other teachers wanted.
Mrs. Bentley was not a mean person, in point of fact, she was very nice. Looking back, I can see she really cared about what she was doing. Unfortunately, she was very soft spoken, and she had a hard time getting the class to pay attention to her. While her assignments were thoughtful, relatively easy, and very much inspired us to write creatively, her classroom control skills were just not up to par.
One day, she was attempting to get our attention and everyone in the class was busy talking with each other. It was just another day somewhere in the middle of the semester, and we just were feeling the excitement of knowing we were just a month or two away from leaving high school forever. One of my fellow students spoke up:
“Everyone be quiet, she’s (Mrs. Bentley) trying to teach!”
To which, I completely exaggerated my total loss of control and laughed boisterously. I really played it up. If it wasn’t the cruelest act I have ever committed, it was certainly close. I mocked this woman’s ability to teach, a profession she, at the very least, spent 4 years preparing for; given the requirements in the state at the time, she had, at her own expense, continuing education courses to take towards a Master’s Degree (if she did not already have one). There is a reason why I am so intimate with her situation, and it only makes my apology that much more necessary.
When I graduated high school, my GPA was a 1.4. I barely got out because I did not take my schooling seriously when I was a freshman/sophomore (C’s, D’s, and a couple F’s), so by the time I started to really bear down in my junior/senior years, all my A’s and B’s could not help bring up my average. I wasn’t going to college, at least not right away, based on my grades. So I signed up for the Delayed Entry Program and went into the U.S. Navy. I was scheduled to leave for Basic Training about 6 weeks after graduation.
I managed to do okay in the Navy. I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the best sailor they ever had, but I didn’t get into too much trouble, and I got promoted 4 times in 4 years. While I was there, I got a chance to volunteer one day a week at a local elementary school. I would show up in my dress uniform, spend time with a specific class, help the teacher out, and give the kids a positive role model. Most of these kids had one or both parents in the military, and were used to them being deployed for 6 months, or more, at a stretch, so giving them a little extra attention really seemed to bring their spirits up. I really liked working with the kids. I thought, maybe I could get out and become a teacher myself (it probably didn’t hurt that I was dating a woman who was in college back in PA, who was training to be a teacher herself).
So that’s what I did. I got out of the Navy. I was almost 22 and a veteran. I had my pick of just about any college I wanted. They didn’t even ask me for my SAT score (970). All I had to do was prove I graduated high school. So I went to this little college in Southwestern PA to become a teacher. I started with elementary Ed, but I began to realize young children weren’t really my thing, so I moved to Social Science, but I discovered I had to take College Algebra to get that degree, so I settled on Secondary Education Communications with a minor in Theatre, precisely because it didn’t require me to pass College Algebra. I would be certified to teach English, Drama, and Public Speaking. I took my time because I really loved being in college. I relished in the coursework. I loved learning. I took 5 years to finish my undergrad instead of 4 because there were so many wonderful courses I wanted to take. I truly wanted to be the kind of teacher that helped my students love learning as much as I did. I hoped I could be as inspiring to the younger generations as Richard Dreyfuss had been in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” or Robin Williams, was in “Dead Poet’s Society.” I was still terribly young, inexperienced, and idealistic. I thought everything would be absolutely amazing when I got a classroom of my own.
Sometimes, reality is a bitch. It turned out, despite all the training I received, I was ill equipped to be a teacher. I seemed to develop a rapport with the students, but I didn’t handle the myriad of administrative duties of being a teacher very well. I wasn’t keen on the political bureaucracy, I didn’t understand the faculty intrigues. I struggled with lesson planning. I struggled with student discipline. I struggled with being the only “adult” in the classroom. I opened my mouth when I probably shouldn’t have. While I had some administrators who saw my passion, and seemed to believe, with the right kind of help, I would make an excellent teacher, I also had a few others who saw me as an incompetent disaster, and they worked diligently to see to it that I left the field, one way or the other. They were the ones who eventually won. After only 2 years as a teacher, I left a dismal failure. I broke down and cried for all the work I had put in to find out that I just couldn’t cut it. Clearly, I was meant for other things, and I would spend nearly 6 more years of my life trying to figure that out.
So you see, I know intimately just what Mrs. Bentley had to go through to become a teacher. I know because I did it too; only to fail miserably at it. I realize now, in absolute visceral detail, just how cruel I had been to her. I do recognize that I did this thing in a moment of youthful ignorance, but it does not excuse the emotional pain I know caused her. I have had plenty of time since then to imagine Mrs. Bentley crying over of my heartless act. I have imagined how angry her husband probably was at me too. At any rate, after all these years, I don’t remember for certain, but I am pretty sure I earned either an “A” or “B” in her class. I don’t really know for certain what became of her, but I heard she did not teach at the high school again after that year. It was rumored she went back to teaching middle school. I sincerely wish I could tell her just how sorry I really am. I believe irony caught up with me and taught me a lesson. It wasn’t so much that Mrs. Bentley was a bad teacher, it was that I was a bad student. Sometimes our actions come back to haunt us. In the end, Mrs. Bentley taught me a far greater life lesson than I ever thought possible.