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Regina Barreca


Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

The Worst and
The Best Teachers



You remember your worst and your best teachers. You carry their influences with you for the rest of your life.

Last year I wrote a column about the fact that every teacher has a kid in class that he or she cant stand. It was pretty funny and, I thought, opened up for discussion the sort of thing we arent usually encouraged to talk about: the way we really feel in situations when we know were not perfect. Its hard to treat all our students fairly, especially when youre secretly allergic to some of them. Ha ha and all that.

In response, however, two readers -- one from Michigan, one from Florida -- asked a question I hadnt anticipated: both asked if Id ever been that kid in somebodys class.


Lauren emailed me from Miami, asking Dont you believe that for every student shortcoming, there is a comparable teacher one? Its like a law of pedagogical physics.

With an epiphany of the sort most poignantly illustrated by a light bulb going off over Bugs Bunnys head, I realized I was that kid to my kindergarten teacher.

My kindergarten teacher hated me.

Lets call her Miss Day. If I did well (reading from a Dr. Suess book, for example) Miss Day made me feel as though I were showing off (Well, Gina, I suppose you want everyone to know youve read the book before. And now everyone does. Are you happy?). If I failed (an inability to cope with shoelaces was a shameful vice) Miss Day made me feel as if I should crawl into a corner and be fitted with a dunce cap (Many children much younger than you know how to tie their shoes. Look at Amy. She makes a lovely bow.).

More than likely, the extremely young Miss Day simply preferred the kids who were cool. Cool kids wore matching Danskin tops and pants; they had cute lunch boxes and shiny shoes. I looked like a Displaced Person, dressed in whatever my mother would find that was clean and warm, carrying with me everyday a paper bag containing a baloney sandwich. Me and the other kids like me did not look like children from TV commercials or education textbooks; we looked like extras from ads for Vicks Vapor Rub with our perpetually runny noses. Its hard to avoid wanting to be liked by the cool, neat kids.

A seasoned teacher, however, knows enough not to make her preferences for certain kids horribly obvious to the unpreferred. Looking back, I suspect Miss Day was teaching her first class that very year.

Perhaps, then, I should feel more sympathetic than I do. Perhaps I should, after 43 years, engage in that whole letting-bygones-be-bygones business?


But its not going to happen.

Hey, lets face it, I still carry my kindergarten teachers implicit contempt and explicit condescension with me like gum stuck to the heel of my (now shiny and neatly-tied shoe).

I wanted to like Miss Day: she was cute and pretty. She was cool.

To be like Miss Day had been my dream. Now its my nightmare.

Throughout the rest of elementary school, thank heavens, I had a series of instructors who were terrific -- and Ill offer a Valentine to several of them in next months Best Teachers column.

But lets stick to the bad, shall we? Lets fast-forward ten years to a woman Ill call Mrs. Luper. She taught a creative writing class the year I was 16, which also happened to be the year my 47-year-old mother was dying of cancer.

Mrs. Luper was 26 and had gone to Mount Holyoke. She married her husband after a previous boyfriend had thrown himself out the window to die for the unrequited love of her (she said) and she had switched her major from medicine to English because she decided she wanted to teach Shakespeare and not because she failed the science classes (she said).

She said a lot of things and we believed all of them.

Mrs. Luper was a dangerous woman.

She was not dangerous to our morals but to our boundaries; we didnt know where she stopped and we started. A bunch of us (now fairly cool) girls became her fan club, her groupies, her miniatures. She collected us like knickknacks from the Franklin Mint. She told us stories about her impending fame as a writer and we believed her. She told me a boy I was dating wasnt good enough for me and I broke up with him. She told another girl that she could afford to take off a few pounds and the girl practically starved herself to death. If we took a few days off from visiting her after class (not missing the actual class, mind you -- just the after-class social hour) Mrs. Luper was cold and reserved; we made sure to stop by every day.

The day I heard how sick my mother was, my life was thrown entirely out of whack. My need for advice and comfort was raw and real. Of course I sought out Mrs. Luper, waiting until everyone else had left to go back to normal homes. Mrs. Luper listened. She nodded her head. Then Mrs. Luper smiled a polished smile and told me she couldnt help me; she suggested I see a school counselor.

Suddenly there was a boundary; it was as if there had been an invisible high-voltage fence between us that Id ignored until the day I ran headlong into it.

She dismissed me. I was dismissed.

The summer passed, my mother died, my senior year began, and Mrs. Luper sent me a note saying she hoped we could resume our friendship. I had friends; what she set herself up to be was a mentor and that was a role she could no longer claim. I didnt write back.

But I also never forgot her.

It was one thing for the kindergarten teacher not to pair-bond with the round-faced, black-eyed girl who was straight out of the Dondi comic strip; it was something entirely different for the high-school teacher -- herself straight out of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-- not to offer support to a desperate kid from whom she had sought loyalty and devotion.

I learned a great deal from both these instructors.

I learned, the hard way, that teachers are human beings, with their own strengths and weaknesses; I learned that you can hurt your students by liking them too much as well as by liking them too little.

The lesson here? Every student in every class has a relationship with his or her teacher, one that continues long after the final papers are handed in, the last books are shut, and the concluding good-byes at the classroom door are said. That relationship continues, as all significant relationships do, for better and for worse.