Monday, May 19, 2014

The Foundations of Learning

It’s college graduation season. The Beloved Spouse and I connected with The Sole Heir to see her beau graduate from St. Mary’s College of Maryland on Saturday.

I love spending time on college campuses. High schools, for that matter. Middle and elementary schools. For all their faults, those are the places where Learning lives, and there is no more noble aspiration for any human than to learn. It doesn’t matter what, or why. Learning for the sheer hell of it is among the handful of things that separates us from the other animals, Celebrate it.

The Sole Heir and The Sole Heir’s Beau attended school in Montgomery County MD, widely accepted as having among the best schools in the country. (TSHB attended a private school that was no slouch itself.) My high school had a few Advanced Placement courses and a smattering of honors, but a school of less than a thousand students in a town of about 13,000 in a faltering early 70s economy didn’t have the resources to do much more. This did not in any dilute the value of my time there.

What matters in any educational environment, more than facilities and programs and supplies—all of which are important—are teachers. Watching Cosmos the other day, I got to thinking of how I gained my enthusiasm for certain things and not others. Natural skills and inclinations played a part, of course, but in each case I could point to a teacher who sparked an interest in me that burns to this day. I’m sure none of them are still teaching, and several may well be gone altogether, but that doesn’t mean karma will ignore calling them out.

Jim Lagoon, band. He goes first, because it was he who peeled back the first layers of the opinion that which led to a Master’s degree in trumpet performance. Among the proudest days of my teaching career were those when I subbed for Jim, or for someone else and spent time with him, as was treated as a peer.

Paul Shiring, chemistry. His chemistry classes indirectly sparked my interest in physics, acoustics, astronomy, meteorology, and natural sciences in general. Watching a balloon expand in a Bell jar as he created a vacuum, or seeing what happened when two innocuous chemicals were placed in conjunction with each other—no way to stop it once it starts—impressed on me the idea that Nature runs things, and always has more to show us.

Joe Boario, history. He never lectured; he told stories. All of them true, all of them fascinating. Mr. Boario showed how things are connected so I knew history rhymed before I ever read Mark Twain’s comment. Finding the pattern, the relevant historical thread, has served me well in an era where recent history is too rarely taught.

Bill Eberhardt (civics) and Bob Jones (Problems of Democracy). Both taught largely through discussion and debate and made fascinating content that is often perceived as dry as dust. I still remember our eighth-grade class’s discussion of eminent domain. (“You mean if two old senile people have a house and they want to build a road there…”)

Lee Herps, social studies. I didn’t appreciate Mr. Herps in eleventh grade; none of us did. Later, when I understood he wasn’t teaching us things to remember, but yardsticks by which to measure, I wished I’d paid better attention. Herps should have taught college; he was wasted on high school kids.

Dudley Risher and Marko Arezina, algebra. Math is in everything, and they taught me not to be intimidated by it, but to embrace the fact, because it meant anything could be figured out.

Karen Baldwin, psychology. Probably a hippie, though most Burrell students—such as me—would be too square to recognize it. I think she only lasted one year at Burrell, but in that small window I learned there were more ways to think about things than I had considered.

Last and obviously not least, Larry Seeley, English and creative writing. I knew he was special when he asked the class why it takes Hamlet so long to kill Claudius after speaking with the ghost. After a spirited discussion, Seeley waved us off and said, “If Hamlet walks right down and kills his uncle, the play is fifteen minutes long. No one would pay to see that.” Then he spent the time to show us how successful writing appeals on multiple levels, and that entertainment can be enlightening, and uplifting content can be entertaining. I wrote my first story in his class, after he learned I’d discovered Mickey Spillane and suggested writing a PI story.

I wish I’d thought of doing this twenty years ago, when It might have mattered more—or at all—to these teachers. I didn’t, and that’s on me. Wherever they are, I hope they garnered even half as much satisfaction from teaching as their students benefitted from their efforts, whether we knew it or not, or wished to acknowledge it. Stopping my inventory here doesn’t mean teachers stopped influencing my life after high school—far from it—these are the people who teed me up to be ready for what the others had waiting.

Thank you.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am glad your teacher meant so much to you. It means a lot to them to know this.