It is Teacher Appreciation Week here in the US and after a 3rd school year where we have all been impacted in some form or fashion by COVID, the majority of teachers have very complicated feelings about our profession. I wrote this piece last year in honor of one of my most favorite teachers–someone who loved teasing out the complexities of this world we live in–and it seems like a really good time to repost.
I am missing Mrs. Thompson this week–as I have numerous times this past year–as a sounding board in my life (and regular follower of my blog); however, re-reading this post helps ground me and reminds me of just how important Mrs. T and her husband, Mr. T, have been to my life.
Who have been your favorite teachers?
January 16, 2021
The quieter one. More reserved.
My public high school experience was one of privilege. Granted I didn’t realize at the time just how lucky I was, but in comparison to where I have taught throughout my own teaching career, I recognize just how much we had back then in regards to resources–and amazing teachers. Many of my teachers were great, but a few were significantly important to my life, especially a small group of high school English teachers who opened my mind and expanded my life in wonderful ways. This group had developed courses that merged writing, reading, the Arts, history, politics, values and the importance of being decent humans all into their curriculum. This curriculum included reading Jonathan Kozol’s The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and Hans Ruesch’s Top of the World (anyone have a copy? it is no longer in print!) and watching class movies like Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small in 9th grade; taking a week long class trip to New York City in 11th grade during our Approaching the Arts English elective course; and hosting a special school visitor, Allen Ginsburg, when he was in town for a program at the University of Michigan. They were even able to create a Zen and Emerson course in our fairly Conservative community, which I took my senior year.
Our suburban Detroit school district was especially unique in that the community high schools were located on the same piece of land, in the middle of the larger community. Each school had its own facilities, staff, administrations, and teachers, but shared students, the football field, and the music program. In the late 1960s, two high schools were built on this property, but by the 1980s, student numbers had increased to the point where a 3rd high school was needed. There were about 5-6 years, before the new school was built (alongside the other two), where there wasn’t enough room at the 2 high schools for a traditional 9-12 program, so the district shifted its 4 middle schools (6-8th grade) to junior high schools (7-9th), leaving only 10-12 grades at the high schools and K-6 at the elementary schools. My sister and I both entered middle school in 6th and left after our 9th grade ‘freshmen’ year, entering high school in 10th.
I only mention this part of the story, because 2 of these amazing English teachers, mentioned earlier, happened to be a married couple, the Thompsons. I had made the mistake of not switching teachers during 8th grade when an inexperienced, unprepared shop teacher taught my 8th grade math class (think paper wad fights, limited pre-Algebra, etc.), and so when I started 9th grade English with a teacher who had a reputation for not controlling her classes (think being locked in the closet, threatening to jump out the 3rd floor window, etc.), I requested a transfer out of her class. My request was granted and I ended up in Mr. Thompson’s class. I remember second guessing my decision to transfer that first week in his class, because what Mr. T was doing was so different than anything I had experienced before (where were the grammar lessons? where were the worksheets?), but quickly I realized that maybe this guy had potential. That decision to transfer classes ended up being one of the truly pivotal events in my life. Talk about an eye opening experience!
Well, the next year I headed to high school–as a sophomore. That first semester was a very challenging one because we were back to being the babies who didn’t know where things were. I remember struggling to find my way that first semester–swimming on swim team, floundering with Geometry (but taking Drafting because I still thought I might be an architect), and being bored in English with a nice, but traditional teacher. Second semester was different: I knew my way around the large campus; turned 16 and got my drivers license; joined ski club and met the guy who would be my high school sweetheart; and ended up with Mrs. Thompson for American Lit 2 when my schedule changed.
Being in Mrs. T’s class was an extension of Mr. T’s, but instead we were looking at classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Turn of the Screw.” I knew how she taught and what she was looking for in our writing. She knew how I’d been taught and would compare notes about me–and my sister who had Mr. T that year–with her husband. She, too, used a green pen to comment on our papers, but she had a more laid back presence to her rockstar teaching skills, than Mr. T. Being in her class was almost like being in a writers studio or salon, as had her husband’s, and was a “happy place” for me–whereas Geometry was the complete opposite!
Mrs. Thompson was also the only one of this group that I remember actually writing with us. I have a visual memory of her doing a free write assignment with us and sharing her finished product. Maybe it was a poem. Maybe it was a “I remember…” prompt. Maybe it was a prompt from this list below. Regardless, that made an impact on me. She was “A Writer Teaching Writing” like Donald Murray recommended.
Junior year, I had Mrs. Masters–the ring leader of this radical group–for Approaching the Arts and my sister joined me on campus (along with Mr. T). Senior year, I had Mr. Thompson again, for at least one semester of Advanced Comp, and Mrs. Hewitt for Zen and Emerson. That semester, Mrs. Thompson audited my Z & E class, preparing to teach it the next year (when my sister took it). Needless to say, there was plenty of overlap between all of their courses (Ezra Pound, Saul Alinsky, Igmar Bergman) plenty of namedropping (Mrs. Masters said this, Mrs. Hewitt said that, Mr. & Mrs. Thompson went to this Ann Arbor movie viewing or Detroit Institute of Arts opening, the Baldwin Sisters had this dinner discussion with their parents), and it was never dull. Because of this krewe, I graduated knowing I could write and that teaching was a worthwhile endeavor. I attended Northern Michigan University knowing that I wanted to be a public high school teacher because of these teachers I was lucky enough to have teach me.
I was invited to at least one holiday party Mr. and Mrs. Thompson threw at their home for their students and went back to speak to one of Mr. Thompson’s classes while I was a Peace Corps recruiter, but for the most part, we went on with our lives.
That was until the Net and social media–in particular, Facebook–entered in to the equation. 10 years ago this summer I found and reached out to Mr. T.
This was the summer before cancer entered my life, 3 years before it dropped onto my sister’s radar and 5 years before it entered Mrs. T’s.
And he responded to my message!
It was so wonderful to catch up via FB and we ended up meeting up 2 summers later in Ann Arbor with my sister and Mrs. T, which was so much fun!
Besides Facebook, Mrs. T started following my blog, as well. Receiving feedback on virtual posts brought me back to high school and the support I received all of those years ago. It was fantabulous!!! While we were still in NOLA, I received a message asking what I thought about the “Treme” series. When we were back in Chicago, I received a request for NOLA restaurant recommendations for their daughter who was going to visit the Big Easy. And 4 years ago, I received a long message from Mrs. T that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 4 years ago, Barb and I were able to spend a wonderful afternoon together over lunch, which is where the picture at the top of this post was taken.
Needless to say, our relationship entered a new phase and I’m grateful that we were able to share this part of our journeys the past 4 years.
Unfortunately, I got word this week that Mrs. T has entered hospice. This news has hit me hard and I struggled with what to do. I realized when I sat in my virtual classrooms teaching on Friday that Mrs. T was a big reason as to why I was even sitting there. It seemed to make sense to write this blog post. Hopefully, Mrs. T’s green pen approves.
Mrs. Thompson–Kathy–thank you for being a most wonderful friend, mentor, editor, and teacher. I am sending you peace and light. See you on the other side. Much love, JoAnn