Lessons From a Bad Teacher in My Public School Education

I started writing this blog after watching Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman' because I was stunned by its depiction of America's awful teachers and the unions that protect them -- I had no idea that it is harder to fire a tenured teacher than a lawyer or a doctor. But as I started writing about the teachers I had in school, it quickly became apparent that my reaction about bad teachers was both personal and experiential.

I remember the dance teacher who declared Carl Orff's Carmina Burana to be devil-worshipping music, the social studies teacher who preferred playing a silent indoor ball game with the class instead of studying world events, the Gifted Reading teacher who liked to arrange all 10 of us into a human pyramid, get the next-door teacher (who often taught his class dressed up as Muammar al-Gaddafi) to come watch it collapse, and then laugh at us "smarties," for falling (or, in her eyes, failing), as we eventually would. She liked to tell us, as we sat on the floor watching her apply blue eyeshadow, that King Lear was a history play, The Merchant of Venice was a tragedy and she really wished she had become a stewardess instead of a teacher. Though summers off was nice.

That was junior high. In high school there was Ms. Morrison.

The bell rang on the hour, but we all knew English wouldn't start for at least twenty more minutes. Cigarettes and a bunch of dogs kept Ms. Morrison out of the classroom, in her van and away from us, her class of "accelerated" 10th graders.

Finally she would stub out her last cigarette, pet the dogs for a millionth time and lock up her van, deciding that it was time to at least make a pretense of teaching. In this way we moved very slowly though the curriculum -- The Scarlet Letter took us months.

When Ms. Morrison made her return, a distinct air of annoyance (and the stench of menthol) would hang about her, it was as if we were somehow to blame for depriving her of precious time spent with her dogs. Her "uniform," an asexual grouping of workpants, western styled shirts and scarves tied around her neck, was far better suited to training dogs than it was to analyzing classic American Literature.

But it wasn't just a deficiency of professional attire. Her lack of interest in teaching permeated everything. Tests were always fill in the blank, as essays required too much time and consideration in grading. She maintained an emotional distance from all of us; no one knew her and she made sure no one wanted to. Office hours? Nonexistent. And her obstinate refusal to display any guilt -- hell, even any acknowledgment -- of her daily tardiness, sent the clearest message of all: she just didn't give a damn.

I can see her now; standing before us talking about the red letter "A" that Hester Prynne was forced to wear. And I see Ms. Morrison's face, and wonder for the millionth time why it was such a striking ochre color.

Urban legend said that Ms. Morrison was a former nun who became a lay English teacher after her convent burned to the ground. We surmised, like every class before us, that the ochre color was the result of scarred flesh. But we never wondered why she left that life.

Only now do I see the horrible quirk of fate: Ms. Morrison wore her facial scarring in much the same way Hester wore her "A". They each displayed a defining symbol of their past.

What went through her mind as she looked upon her students? Young, with perfect, unscarred skin and no past to bear?

It's no wonder that she preferred the company of her dogs, that she hid behind horrible makeup or that she would dislike us so much.

In The Scarlet Letter it is precisely because of Hester's past (her sin of adultery) that she is able to gain invaluable lessons in humanity. Sadly, Ms. Morrison never changed, never gave us a chance and always, always, arrived to class late.