What I Learned at School
By MARIE MYUNG-OK LEE
THE tumult over state budgets and collective bargaining rights for public employees has spilled over into resentment toward public school teachers, who are increasingly derided as “glorified baby sitters” whose pay exceeds the value of the work they do.
But how exactly do we measure the value of a teacher?
As a writer, I often receive feedback from readers I have never met. But the other day, I received a most unexpected message in response to one of my essays:
“I am so proud of you and all you have accomplished. I shared your opinion from The L.A. Times with my family and reminisced about you as my student at Hibbing High School.”
It was signed Margaret Leibfried, who was my English teacher — a teacher who appeared at a critical juncture in my life and helped me believe that I could become a writer.
Thirty years ago, in Hibbing, a town in northern Minnesota that is home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, I entered high school as a bookish introvert made all the more shy because I was the school’s only nonwhite student. I always felt in danger of being swept away by a sea of statuesque blond athletes. By 10th grade, I’d developed a Quasimodo-like posture and crabwise walk, hoping to escape being teased as a “brain” or a “chink,” and then finding being ignored almost equally painful. I spent a lot of time alone, reading and scribbling stories.
Ms. Leibfried taught American literature and composition grammar, which involved the usual — memorizing vocabulary and diagramming sentences — but also, thrillingly, reading novels.
Thrilling to me, that is. Many of my classmates expressed disdain for novels because they were “not real.” For once, I didn’t care what they thought. Ms. Leibfried seemed to notice my interest in both reading and writing, and she took the time to draw me out; she even offered reading suggestions, like one of her favorite novels, “The Bell Jar.”
That year’s big project was a book report, to be read aloud to the class. However, Ms. Leibfried took me aside and suggested I do something “a little different.” Instead of a report, I was to pick a passage from a book, memorize it and recite it in front of the class.
While I longed for the safety and routine of the report, I was curious how this new assignment might work out. By then obsessed with “The Bell Jar,” I chose a passage that I thought showed off the protagonist’s growing depression as well as Sylvia Plath’s sly humor.
The morning of the presentations, I remember my palms sweating so badly as I walked to the front of the class that I held my hands cupped in prayer formation, so I wouldn’t wipe them on my shirt.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
Dr. Gordon twiddled a silver pencil. “Your mother tells me you are upset.”
I finished and, to my surprise, the class broke out in applause. “As a writer and a good reader, Marie has picked out a particularly sensitive piece of prose and delivered it beautifully,” Ms. Leibfried said, beaming. I felt, maybe for the first time, confident.
Ms. Leibfried was followed the next year by Mrs. Borman, quiet, elderly and almost as shy as I was. She surprised everyone when she excused me from her grammar class, saying my time would be spent more productively writing in the library. I took the work seriously, and on a whim submitted an essay I’d come up with to Seventeen Magazine. When they published it, it was big news for the high school — it was even announced on the P.A. system. Mrs. Borman wasn’t mentioned, nor did she ever take any credit; in her mind she was just doing her job.
I can now appreciate how much courage it must have taken for those teachers to let me deviate so broadly from the lesson plan. With today’s pressure on teachers to “teach to the test,” I wonder if any would or could take the time to coax out the potential in a single, shy student.
If we want to understand how much teachers are worth, we should remember how much we were formed by our own schooldays. Good teaching helps make productive and fully realized adults — a result that won’t show up in each semester’s test scores and statistics.
That’s easy to forget, as budget battles rage and teacher performance is viewed through the cold metrics of the balance sheet. While the love of literature and confidence I gained from Ms. Leibfried’s class shaped my career and my life, after only four short years at Hibbing High School, she was laid off because of budget cuts, and never taught again.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, the author of the novel “Somebody’s Daughter,” teaches writing at Brown.
Do you think Michelle Rhee touched any students the way these teachers touched this writer?
Do you think Shael Polakow Suransky did?
How about any of the "driven by data" crowd at the Gates or Broad Foundation education indoctrination centers?
The kind of teaching described above will wiped out if the Gates/Broad/Bloomberg/Obama/Duncan/Rhee/Klein model for teaching and teacher evaluations continues to be promoted.
It's that simple.