August 29, 2008

Doing Absolutely Nothing for the Common Perception of Public Education

The most boring class of my life was Current Events. That wasn’t its official title; it was one of those standard classes where high schoolers were made to read the newspaper so they wouldn’t be insular, self-important pricks (well, so we wouldn’t always be insular, self-important pricks). The class was at least twenty minutes longer than necessary, the room seldom had heat, and since we were talking politics the language was cold and bland. I hated the class, and I hated Mrs. Grieshaber. I hated her red, chicken-comb hairdo and I hated her fuschia lipstick. I hated her nasally patronizing voice, and I hated the hell out of the gallon of purple lotion on the corner of her desk. But mostly I hated her because she made us read US News and World Report, for which I will never forgive her.

At the time, I hated politics and I hated nonfiction, so five mandatory hours a week reading nonfiction with a Conservative bent was an even bigger waste of time than my previous hour (Sports for Girls). Impolitic as I was, I knew which side I was on; reading about which luxury car was the best deal hardly mattered to a kid wearing a sweater that had seen two previous owners. I hated the magazine, resented the time I was forced to waste on it—and as the editors were not present, that hate was transferred directly into Mrs. Grieshaber’s crackled hands.

One particular afternoon, there was an article about Jimmy Carter’s recent book of poetry. Facing the article was a “hilarious” send-up of what that poetry might be like, with a cartoon of Jimmy sitting on a fence and looking about how you would expect given the angle of journalism. I started the take-home quiz at the end of class (I preferred using homework time for television), and paused over a question that stated “What did Jimmy Carter say in his poem…” I stopped, because I’d never read any of Jimmy’s poetry. None of us had—the facing page was a parody (something I was familiar with, as the time I spent in Current Events was time I wasn’t spending in drama club). I left it blank.

When class was over, I walked the page up to Mrs. Grieshaber’s desk. Whenever I ask teachers questions, I triple-check to make sure I am in the right. I don’t want to seem like a smartass, so I approach with an air of confusion—that way, if it is my mistake, neither of us has to look stupid. Unfortunately, this approach made most teachers think I was dense, because the common response was to repeat the question several times, slowly.

I handed her the paper and asked if I had missed something. I said, “There isn’t any of his poetry in here.”

She sighed heavily. “Yes there is, there’s a whole article.”

“No,” I said, hoping the text would back me up, “there’s an article, then some poetry, uh, in the style of Jimmy Carter, but it isn’t written by him.”

She stared at me, then grabbed the issue off her desk and opened it to the page with the cartoon. “There it is,” she said defiantly.

I leaned over and checked the byline. The words had not rewritten themselves, as I had feared.

“Um,” I said, trying not to sound accusing, “that was written by the guy who did the article. It doesn’t say Jimmy Carter’s name anywhere… it actually says ‘here are some suggestions’ [I pointed], so… that’s not…” I trail off, thinking that I’m probably in trouble for repeating myself. Her mouth drops open.

“Who cares who wrote it—you knew what I meant!” She sits back, exasperated. The new class is starting to file in behind us.

“I thought I knew what you meant, but I wanted to clarify--”

“Yes, that’s what I meant.” She squirts lotion on her hands. I think I am dismissed.

“Okay.” I put the paper in my bag and left.

Back then, the only thing that mattered to me was that I was right. The teacher was wrong, and I was right. I couldn’t let that stand, because I won spelling bees and was a swotty know-it-all who stayed up late watching Next Generation and spent school writing movie scenes in journals, wondering when the New Kids on the Block were going to roll up to the front door in their convertible and take me away with them. It was high school, so I never knew where we were going—I hadn’t gotten that far. I was just right.

Now, though, I know. I know about the dangers of words—why reading something doesn’t make it true, why attribution is not important—it’s vital, why a misquote must be corrected, why “knowing what someone meant” is not good enough by half. Whether I realized it then or not, the outcome was the same. I wasn’t trying to be difficult; I was just right. She was wrong. That had to be fixed, or I would be wrong, too.

So I took out my disposable pen and answered the question.
But only after I rewrote it.


Dann Rafferty said...

The Chicken Lady was also known for here horrible butchering of words orally, as is known from her use of the words (during spelling bees that SHE was chosen to head, Dog knows why):

May-shur-ment (and tape may-shure)

Seemeent (Cement)

Fer-oh-shitty (ferocity.
This butchery caused Brian Bohley to be eliminated, since he had no fucking clue what she was talking about).

Mamaclsn said...


crdrue said...

ouch. Sounds like an awful class!

Sarah Beedoo said...

I don't care if teachers make mistakes. I hate it when they know they are wrong, but they cannot acknowledge--and therefore cannot correct--the error. Like I'm strongarming them into admitting they're wrong and I, the lowly upstart student, am right. I don't want an apology; I'm just out for the facts. And a moratorium on the non-word "guesstimate." Hate.

Gibulet said...

Miss "crazier-than-a-shithouse-rat" Frank and I had a similar encounter. She blatently defined a word wrong. On the board, and made everyone write it down. I walked to the bookshelf, looked it up in the dictionary, copied the entire definition on paper, signed the paper with my own name and put it into her mailbox.

She was displeased, and call Dad ans made him come in for a conference. Yeah, that was a mistake.

"um, Mister Smallwood you daughter seems to have trouble with authority and I don't appreciate being told I am wrong in front of my class."

"You weren't. She gave it to you in private."

"Well, she needs to appreciate that I am the teacher here and my job is to educate her and being indignant isn't helping"

"Was she wrong?" "What?"

"Was she wrong? Did the definition not match what you said?"

"Well she misunderstood me and I don't appreciate..."

"So you were wrong." "No, I wasn't"

Dad proceeded to rip her a new one, and tell her to leave his daughter alone and check the dictionary next time she tries to teach.

That school sucked then, and it sucks now.

Sarah Beedoo said...

Aw, poor G. Run, G, run--and take Falk and Gephardt with you!

Anonymous said...

Falk has gotten out, the lucky devil. I would hope that things have gotten better. We've shaken a few of the loons out of the tree so to speak. And dang, I'm on the middle of the 2nd page of the seniority list so I'm just about officially an old timer! At least I'm a fun kind of crazy! :o)

Did Mrs. Greishaber also stay home on Friday nights to "warsh" her hair?

Mamaclsn said...


Mr. Gephardt defended my honor once. Good man.

Sarah Beedoo said...

@G: While I believe she did, I refrain from speculation (stones, spinsters, and glass houses).

@Jen: I want to hear that story. I loved Gephardt. I always got the "on this day in history" question right, so we were homies.