I believe we all still daily hear the voices of certain teachers from our youth way back in the corners of our minds. The profound effect good and bad teachers had on us in our formative years are more apparent as we age. Everyone has a “favorite” teacher and a “least favorite” teacher whose voices we can still conjure up instantly in our memory. Whether it was being inspired and praised or ridiculed and hurt, those instructors are with us forever. Here are some of mine.
I grew up attending Pelham Memorial High School (Class of 1971) in Westchester, N.Y. As all sixty-something people remember our lives had some major milestones; the shocking JFK assassination in 1963, the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, and the first moonwalk, along with Woodstock – both in the summer 1969. All with the backdrop of the war in Vietnam dominating the news nightly. These events occurred in our school years and effected our education. The wisdom we received from our teachers during all these events shaped us into becoming who we are as people individually and perhaps as a nation.
In Pelham Jr. High there was a science teacher named Archie Decker. He would address misbehaving students by saying, “Get out, Get out, you don’t belong here.” Amazingly enough Archie taught at Pelham High before World War II and knew many of the parents from their school days. My favorite Archie Decker memory is the following. When trying to explain how sophisticated technology was becoming, he told us of a friend of his who was in the wire making business. He said, “This guy was very competent and was determined to make the world’s thinnest wire. So after he thought he created the world’s thinnest wire he sent it to the phone company (AT&T back then) to see if they wanted to buy it from his company. A few weeks later he received a package in the mail from AT&T. In the package was a letter telling him to examine the wire he sent them and they now returned. The wire he thought was the thinnest in the world AT&T had returned to him with a hole drilled through its core!”
Then there was Jerry Mele, another science teacher and World War II submarine veteran. When a question was tough, he would stop and always recite the same line about some tough combat experience in his submarine. In a semi-vintage Kirk Douglas voice he would groan out, “Men were afraid, scared and on their knees, but not J.J. Mele!” He never liked me. When I would yawn, perhaps bored, he would stop his lecture mid-sentence and would say very loudly, “Clemente, close your mouth!”
Every school has a few eccentric teachers; in our school Dr. Nelson Payne was such a teacher. In the beginning of a science lab class he was teaching us how to use the Bunsen burners, the gas heating devices at every lab station. One student wasn’t paying attention, so he asked the student, “Albert, what is fire?” Albert replied, “I don’t know. What is it?” Dr. Payne now annoyed said, “Come up here Albert.” So Albert stood up and made faces and walked up to Dr. Payne who was not amused. When Albert arrived at the lab station Dr. Payne lit the Bunsen burner with some sort of lighter device that made a spark. The Bunsen burner burst into a blue gas burning flame. “Albert,” Dr. Payne commanded, “Put your hand into the center of the flame!” Amazingly Albert did as he was told and instantly yelled out, “Ouch!” as he looked in horror at Dr. Payne who without a smile calmly said, “That is fire, Albert! It is hot, it will burn you, don’t put your hand in fire.” I am not sure what would happen in today’s world to Dr. Payne with teaching habits like this, but in 1968 that did occur.
I attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Catholic grammar school with Irish Franciscan Nuns in the early 1960’s and was taught “Penmanship.” I remember Sister Helen Edwards making the class practice our script writing daily. She would look at my writing and say, “Clemente, no one will understand your writing if you don’t take your time and form the letters correctly.” Now my dad had a beautiful handwriting as did my mother, but my handwriting is so bad I go to the supermarket and I can’t read the items I wrote on the list. I guess I should have taken my time writing it down clearly and slowly.
Somehow all those teachers have become larger than life over time. I never truly thanked them for teaching me things I remember to this day.