Saturday, January 10, 2009

Back to School with Mr. Smart

A Pep Talk For the
Disappointed Teacher

With everyone here at home returning to school, I've started to think about how people impact each other's lives, particularly those in the teacher's role. I've seen many movies that pay tribute to a special teacher, or read books that explain how this teacher/student relationship influenced them in their lives. Personally, I've been a teacher/professor, tutor, counselor or some type of student advisor for most of my adult life and so I've had the opportunity to observe this situation. I've decided that though the movie teacher (hyped) type does exist in some way, those stories that strike me as the most authentic are the ones that feature real people who give every appearance of being ordinary. I think that it is usually unlikely to find a Jamie Escalante (Edward James Olmos), the physics and math teacher of Stand and Deliver, or an East Harlem violin teacher like Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep) of Music of the Heart, or even a more realistic and ambivalent teacher like, Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) of Mr. Holland's Opus. I think the more common situation is that a teacher makes a difference in a person's life (or vice versa) but neither of them quite realize it's significance at the time. Upon reflection, I've noticed that people who have made an impact on my life really didn't notice or know about the "event". Sometimes teachers will never know what a difference they make. Why? We're not prescient fortune tellers (usually?!) so we don't know for sure what will be applied later on in life. Accepting this insight creates a positive kind of faith that our everyday interactions with each other are important.

A Story About An Ordinary Teacher...
Most of the time we think there has to be a special relationship between the teacher and student for a profound impact to be felt but this is not always the case. A teacher can influence a child without it being readily apparent or particularly special to the student at the time the relationship occurs. To illustrate what I mean, let us consider the tweed-jacket-with-patched-elbows-wearing Mr. Grant Smart. He was an English teacher at Huron High school who made a great difference in my life even though I wouldn't say we had a special relationship. As an understated quiet person, he was interesting because he seemed so unpretentious, thoughtful and open to students. He was evenhanded and though I would have liked him to take more time with me, I don't think he was especially interested in my life. He had many students who would demand his attention and sometimes I was shy. Because he was a favorite teacher of a few students that I admired up close but still couldn't call friends, I was brought into his sphere of influence though I remained on the social skirts of this group.

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.

As a teacher, parent, and shared participant in world life, these thoughts make me realizes that change is sometimes difficult and slow but it can happen-maybe not in movie time but can happen, nonetheless. It's good to make the effort to help and not be so worried about immediate results. After all, we don't measure life wisdom the same way we measure academic test results.

The movie photo is part of a group; more To Sir With Love movie photos can be accessed at the school dance photo stream link I provided within this text.


  1. So true Cynthia, My 16 year old's english teacher has had a profound effect on my daughter - (in a positive way). It is beautiful to see ordinary humans being extraordinary.

    Btw, your post didn't register on my page for 3 days! wtf?

  2. Natalie, I think I got mixed up with the post dates, off/on/off sorry for the confusion. I know what you mean about teachers, my daughter takes strong 'impression' from teachers she admires. I was like that, too.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I have seen all of these movies except the first one. I have taught here and there, nursery school, and then adult ed. I have always felt that both as a teacher and as a student, one often doesnt feel the reverberations and impact of teacher/and what is taught until other times in one's life. Thanks for an unusual post. Be well, Suki

  4. Suki, thanks for you comment. Was it "Stand and Deliver" or "To Sir with Love", (1st movie in text or 1st movie in photo)? I've always wanted to see fast results but after teaching for a while, I've realized that we really don't know what matters, after all. We just use our best judgment (and intuition?) and hope for the best.

  5. My mom used to love "To Sir with Love", I watched it once with her. Sidney Poitier is one of my favorite actors as well. As a teacher, I would love to do what the teacher of Freedom Writers did. She brought Miep from Anne Frank, wow I wish I were there as well to have interviewed her. In high school I really like my algebra and chemistry teacher. I learned a lot from him and he was someone I respected for his convictions.
    I don't want to think about going back to work, ugh.
    see you,


  6. Energizeyourlife, I guess we all put pressure on ourselves to be the best, to be remarkable! It makes teaching more stressful. Imagine that your mom liked that movie! I guess "Freedom Writers" could have been added to the list. I read your comments on the other blog, did you see my response?

  7. Hi Cynthia -
    As with Natalie your post just registered today and didn't go to the top of my page as it should have. Nevertheless I've found you again. A wonderful, wonderful post. I have almost always had either a teacher or mentor in my life. And will continue to do's just a way of life for me. Thanks for leading me to 'Journal of a Novel'. I will definitly read it. Big Steinbeck fan. Have a great weekend!

  8. Catherine (TCH), Maybe I should post it again? So glad you found me...maybe you are also a teacher/mentor in the lives of others? You definately have that approach to sharing experience...and Steinbeck doesn't get you down! Enjoy your weekend also!

  9. Hi friends, I republished with today's date. Now it will really be confusing! :-)

  10. Hey Oasis, I haven't checked the other site, by the way, your Monet posting is superb, I saw it in Paris in 1992. It was marvelous plus I met an ex-boyfriend on that trip and we spoke a lot about that portrait, the European country scene, British country scene. You can see some of those flowers here in Maryland in the Spring, what are the called? my undomestic self does not know a lot about flowers. I am going to utter the same words that my mom, who was raised in NYC,used to say' I prefer the city life than the country life. My dad wanted to buy a farm in Cayey and she would tell him, you will go on your own-strong lady, huh? He never bought the land, thank God. I like the country for a couple of hours but it used to scare me, now as I"m getting older, I'm kind of starting to like the country. City life is exciting but I can't relax when I'm in cities and that's one of my weaknesses--trying to relax. I do love NYC and will always love it even if when I'm old.

    BTW, the author of REading Lolita in Tehran works in John Hopkins, if we could bring her to PR, now she has another memoir about her dysfunctional family, I almost bought it last night, but I decided to wait. I'm going to try to get her e-mail and try to see if she would go to PR.
    love and cheers and have a great Saturday in the warm Caribbean, the weather here is awful, 30 and rainy and very cold, like my neighbor from upstate NY says about PR, it's real corrupt but you can't beat the weather.

  11. Yes, energizeyourlife, I like living in the city and the country; I lived in a "village" for over 20 years, on an island outside of San Diego, I liked that too. Only in the country you're free to move around more easily especially if you don't have close neighbors. It is relaxing to me. I like to garden.

    I want to read the new memoir, I got hooked on her life story after the "R. Lolita in Tehran." book.

    I went shopping with A today, we bought a fushia jacket and a black and red party dress-semi formal. She really knows how to get me to spend!

    Your mom was strong but moving from NY to PR was probably enough "country" for her. Stay warm!

  12. Talking about synchronicity...I saw To Sir With Love yesterday on TBS. I've seen it many times. Loved your story about the impact of a single teacher in your life. I have always seen life in our planet like a giant classroom. Thank you for the post I loved....and I love Lulu too!!!

  13. Before I retired, I was nominated a few times for Who's Who in Teaching in Amercia, and students wrote about how I had a profound influence in their lives. Nothing can beat those type of accolades. I will always remember my experiences as a teacher.
    Micki In Ireland

  14. Thanks for visiting Micki, when students put in writing their thoughts and appreciation it is so encouraging. (Loved the music on your site!)


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