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ON THE SCENE: When teachers matter

September 11, 2012
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

This is the time of year that kids and their parents look forward to with a mixture of excitement, fear and dread I mean relief. Of course, I am writing of going back, or for the first time, to school.

I have had some memorable teachers who really left their mark, some seared into my brain and memories.

One that stands out, hmm what was her name, it was a French name and she taught music or at least singing when I was in the Lake Placid elementary school. I had her for 5th and 6th grades at least. She would come to our class once a week and we would take singing lessons. She would bustle in with the song books that she would pass around, Blue Grass in a way, all these songs about people hauling water with a bucket that had a hole in it, or Aunt Roadie's gray goose, whatever. She would put this metal pitch pipe to her mouth, it would make a note, and we were all to sing; all but me and maybe one or two others.

I would have to sit there and listen to everyone else sing as she felt I could not carry a tune, note or anything remotely pleasing to her ears. So week after week, month after month, from one year to the next I sat listening to my classmates sing. Every once and awhile, when she wasn't looking, someone like Greg Adams would take pity on me and sneak me into the group of kids all standing at the head of the classroom, but she would find me out and to my great embarrassment pull me from behind my classmates, drag me back to my seat, and make me sit there and listen to everyone else sing.

I hated her. Hated that class. I had never been before or since so humiliated on such a regular basis over such an extensive period of time.

When you get a bad teacher they can really leave a mark.

A good teacher can also leave a mark. One was Chuck Weed, my geometry teacher at Northwood. I first got to know him as a coach on the ski team, which as interesting as he had one arm one normal arm, the other ended with a hook, which he could open and close. It proved very useful for opening cans of soda. We would hold the can and he would open to the prongs of the hook and whack it into the can. "Hold it steady," he would say, and we would. I will never forget the time while at a dinner in Brattleboro, a church supper, he picked up packet of Nabisco saltine crackers. Across from us sat kids from an opposing ski team watching with rapt attention as he reached out with this thin hook and picked up the crackers saying, "I can pick them up ever so gently (holding them for the others to see), and then CRUSH them." Did that ever unnerve the other students as did seeing us casually holding out a can of soda and he whacking down on it. Made them think we were really all a bit demented and crazy, which gave us a bit an edge in the race.

Riveting as that all was, his real mark wasn't how he helped psyched out the opposition, but in the classroom. On one level I was good at geometry. I could quickly grasp the concept and figure out what to do get to the solution, my problem was demonstrating all the little steps my mind had taken to get there providing those details killed me. He knew that I knew the answer, but had great difficulty demonstrating how and why my answer was correct. So there I was, in his office with my paper with all these red marks all over it and a barely passing grade and I frustrated because even though I had the right answer my marks were worse then some who had not.

He told me that this was not a math course, it was not an exercise in getting the right answer, but learning how to think and learning how to help others follow your reasoning so they could understand your thinking process. He helped me understand that school was about gaining a set of tools that could be applied in a wide variety of situations. For me it was a a-hah moment. As P.G. Woodhouse would say, "The scales feel from my eyes." He helped me understand the importance of process and the relish the journey to look at geometry as a bit of an adventure. Doing so he turned around my educational experience.

When I got to college, to Pratt Institute I have to say two people saved my butt. The first was Albert Christ-Janer, the dean of the art department, a person as formable as his name. I came to Pratt bustling with confidence. I was the leading arts student in high school, the go to kid for anything that needed to be done artistically. Pratt was a rude awakening. Pratt was filled with kids who all came with a much better grounding in the arts than I had.

My middle and high school art teachers had been great in many ways, but they both were illustrators (commercial artists) and had taught me a wealth of tricks that I had to unlearn at Pratt. In the middle of the first semester Christ-Janer pulled me into his office and suggested that I might be better off in some other trade. Basically he gave me a slap in the face and a kick in the butt; that it was time to buckle down and start from the beginning.

The other was Mr. Hall. He didn't have a first name as far as any of us were concerned. He taught a one credit drawing course. It was a nasty course filled with nasty assignments. He would hold up a bottle of India ink, the blackest ink there is. He would then dilute it at a 50 to one ration and tell us our assignment was to create a water color of a half dozen eggs that went from purist white to pure black by laying down 50 coats of wash letting each layer one dry before adding the next one. He said if we used a hair dryer or laying the drawing out in the sun to speed up the drying that it would fade the colors a bit and it might take us 80 coats to reach pure black.

His assignments were like that, each one impossible to complete in a week. We worked harder for him than anyone else and all for just one credit. Anyone who managed to get 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night felt they were doing great. But man did he teach us how to draw. His final class was a kicker. He brought in a model, not just any model, but a stripper who went from one erotic pose to another more erotic then the last. It is not easy to draw drenched in sweat with your hands trembling and eyeballs dry from not blinking.



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