I just had a conversation with an old high school friend of mine who is now a high school teacher herself about the nature of student/teacher relationships.
She confessed that she has an easier time connecting with her male students than her female ones; this prompted us to reminisce about the teachers who had impacted us most during those years.
I was somewhat amazed to realize that ALL of the teachers who sprang to my mind were men.
We talked about a journalism teacher in particular who we both adored; he was the sort who wore jeans and drank diet Pepsi while sitting on the corner of his desk. He was a dynamic instructor and person full of interesting stories, many of which I have never forgotten.
But what made him extraordinary was less these things and more the way he treated us: with respect for our opinions and intellects.
At some point during the year, the man in charge of our school newspaper asked him to recommend a student from the class to start writing op-ed pieces. I was obviously thrilled and flattered to get the nod.
The first piece requested was on Bernard Goetz, controversial subway shooter, a hot topic of the day. I will never forget when I handed in the assignment with the title, “Man or Superman?” (I was REALLY into George Bernard Shaw) how he cackled with glee and literally rubbed his hands together while reading it.
I was permanently bit with the writing bug in that moment.
As my friend and I continued to talk I started developing a theory I had never even considered before, about why the male teachers seem to have influenced me so much more powerfully than the females.
It was not about the “quality” of their instruction; I went to excellent public schools in those golden years before the common core devastated the joy of teaching and was blessed with a high percentage of gifted and exciting mentors. But my relationships with the men were more meaningful because it was a totally safe environment to have this kind of one-on-one connection with an adult man who was not related to me. The only opportunity like it available to me, in fact.
I had many occasions to relate intimately to adult women I was not related to outside of school, but none with men. What made the student-teacher bond so enriching was that it was based on intellect rather than anything emotional. These men were responding to me because I was bright and engaged, and it set a very healthy stage for my future relationships with males in general.
When I was a sophomore I had a truly wonderful biology teacher who taught with such gentle clarity and enthusiasm I don’t remember anyone ever giving him a hard time about anything. Now, if I were to physically describe him, you would start to make all kinds of assumptions that were categorically not true—most specifically that he was a stereotypical geek. Believe me when I say, the man had transcended geek.
He is one of the coolest guys I have ever met.
And he was so canny about how to connect with his students it was almost supernatural. My parents went in for an open house type thing and he told them what a pleasure it was to have me in class because the quality of my attention was so keen; he said whenever he looked at me he could TELL how closely I was listening. My mother proudly related this information back to me.
Now here’s the truth: one of the very first skills I developed in early childhood as a chronic, habitual daydreamer (aren’t all writers?) was an ability to LOOK as though I was listening when actually I was lost in my own head. I cannot overemphasize how handy this was in church, school and anytime my folks started nagging me.
But when my Mom told me this story, I turned over new leaf immediately; the fact that the man had both NOTICED and APPRECIATED that I appeared to be listening inspired me to ACTUALLY listen.
I still amaze (annoy) people with my encyclopedic level of high school biology knowledge.
And then of course there was the guy all the girls had a crush on.
The sociology teacher was our school’s very own Indiana Jones—although none of us resorted to writing “Love You” on our eyelids (as far as I know). Remembering how as enamored teenage girls we behaved in packs (so much squealing and giggling!) I can say with absolute certainty that this man knew how we felt. And handled it with such ease and grace it sort of boggles my mind in retrospect.
Again, what I remember about his responses to me and my work was the high level of esteem with which I was treated, both my person and what I had to say. Not to imply that he was overly formal or deferential; he actually had a wonderful sense of humor and a casual comfort in the classroom. There was something very powerful about feeling so safe and respected with a man I admired so much.
Like Indiana Jones, he was heroic to me.
Last but certainly not least was the late, great Mr. Scott, who taught me both junior year American History and senior year Economics. He was so funny and whip-smart that I once wrote an essay about him titled “Late Afternoon with Mr. Scott,” comparing him favorably to David Letterman. Mr. Scott was masterful in front of an audience and such an entirely impressive figure that when I later heard of his untimely death it seemed surreal, impossible.
The man was mythic.
I did very well in both of his classes, so when the time came to ask teachers for college recommendations, he was one of the first I considered—but he was such a school celebrity, I was somewhat intimidated at the prospect. However, he agreed quite easily and when he had finished the task returned it to me in an unsealed envelope.
Of course the temptation to read before submitting was too great to resist; what did this man really think of me?
In person he was dynamic, brusque and hilariously funny, but his recommendation was entirely elegant, appropriate and humble; I will never forget the awe I felt that this great man held me in high regard. For me, he was a game changer. All of these men were.
They taught me how good it feels to be respected for my mind, opinions and efforts by a man I admire. My male teachers taught me more than journalism, biology, sociology, history, and economics; they taught me how I want to be treated by men.
And I am forever grateful.
July 8, 2016