A Story About An Ordinary Teacher...
One year, he was convinced by a group of seniors to have a poetry class elective. As as a tenth grader, I wasn't allowed to attend. However, often I would sit with the students and participate in the class. When spring fever hit the school, he was willing to conduct his class outside on the grass. We had a portable record player which continuously played John Denver's Sunshine on my Shoulders. I remember his bearded face and his expression, which sort of looked like a pained, "Sunshine on my Shoulders makes me unhappy" statement. He was tired of the repetitious drone, though he endured the song over and over again to our adolescent delight. I was enchanted by the novelty of an outdoor class listening to John Denver under the sun, and it inspired me to write poetry.
One time, I went with my sister and some students to Mr. Smart's little crowded house in the country to pick up some school supplies. A hushed word was passed around by those who knew that Mrs. Smart was suffering from some kind of mental disorder where she spoke incessantly and 'didn't always make sense'. We made our way into the kitchen where Mr. Smart offered us Mr. Snow's Clam Chowder from a can, touting it to be the best clam chowder in the world. We timidly ate a little of the soup with oyster crackers. While eating, I realized that his wife was 'too nervous' to cook or even heat up the soup. She was hovering around the table excitedly trying to assist and he asked her several times to quiet down. Part of her 'problem' (as we talked about it later) was that she collected boxes of random stuff which filled the house. It made the living space exceedingly small. We all tried to be unobtrusive in the tightly packed space and especially polite so that Mr. Smart wouldn't feel embarrassed. At the time, I admired that he took care of her instead of abandoning her to some institutional system. Now I think he needed some support to cope, and maybe some medical help to improve her condition. However, his decision to 'go it alone' was understandable because we didn't really trust psychologists at the time. We left his house in subdued awe knowing that life can bring great personal challenges.
I took an independent study course with Mr. Smart and read John Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath. I received a B+ in an easy A one credit course because I was so despondent about the subject matter, I couldn't get through the material fast enough. (I also read Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men). I tried to understand the character's hopelessness but I didn't like their life perspective. I became determined not to be like those hopeless (or filled with false hope) fictional people when it came to my own life. Though I received a lower grade than I had hoped, I accepted my B+ as the proper compensation for my less than optimum effort-and for this necessary life lesson.
You may remember, To Sir With Love (1967), a teacher-hero movie based on the true story of Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), which some say is overly fictionalized. In the narrative, a British Guyanese teacher (who really is an engineer) is forced to take a teaching job at a London working class inner city school because of racial prejudice. (You may have to overlook a few scenes that are explicitly gender biased; though it may not bother everyone.) What makes the movie so satisfying is that both the teacher and students finally realize how important he was in their development as self-respecting adults.---And the fact that he joins in the school dance. (How cute is that?)
Bolster Your Spirits :-)
If you are interested and/or a teacher, read Frank McCourt's, Teacher Man for a realistic and often funny look at the teaching life. Also, as an antidote to John Steinbeck's harsh realism, try his Journal of a Novel (1969), which is a daily record of his creation process during the writing of East of Eden. Just picturing him sitting at his carefully made table, 8am-3pm every day, worrying over sharpened pencils, and taking spontaneous walks out in the open air makes me cheer up the disappointed adolescent-Steinbeck-reader who still haunts me.