Hurricane Eye, Part Two
I only had problems with two teachers in high school, and one of them was Mrs Varley. I had to put up with her for longer than I should’ve; she taught me two classes and was my homeroom teacher for four years.
Mrs Varley spent most homeroom classes gossiping with students in the class, behaving more like a sixteen-year-old than the middle-aged woman she was. Her teaching methods were listless and unenthusiastic; the only thing I remember from her lessons is the sense that she’d rather be doing anything else. She worked hard to avoid teaching, and that was the only thing she worked hard at.
She assigned us lengthy “research projects” in which we’d break off into groups to study a particular aspect of the curriculum, and then present our findings to the rest of the class. This way, Mrs Varley avoided teaching for up to a month at a time.
She also enjoyed screening movies and miniseries about historical events, the longer the better. We’d often blow a week of classes that way.
One of Mrs Varley’s favourite assignments was having her ancient history class spend two weeks decorating wine bottles, because apparently the ancient Greeks did that. I can’t do any artsy shit because I’m retarded, so my parents requested that I receive an alternate assignment. Constructing another assignment would have required Mrs Varley to do actual work, so instead she just sent me to the A.R. room every class and I did homework from my other classes. I don’t know why she was a teacher.
In retrospect, I see that Ms Duckworth was probably the best teacher I had in high school. Most teachers are content to teach from the curriculum, but I suspect now that Ms Duckworth had a loftier, private goal in mind. In her grade eleven drama class, she arranged a field trip to an avant garde musical. When we asked what the musical was about- in an effort to see if it was worth attending- she refused to give any information, knowing that sixteen-year-olds wouldn’t voluntarily attend a Lynchian love story satirizing corporate America. I hadn’t known that musicals could be so strange, deep, and visceral. Most of my peers were baffled or bored to tears, but it blew my mind. She also had us study the December 6th massacres and write short plays or monologues about them. Everyone else wrote scenes in which they heard about the massacres from a second-hand source. I wrote a monologue as Marc Lepine immediately before perpertrating the massacre. Ms Duckworth read my monologue and took me aside. “If you’re going to perform this, you can’t hold back,” she said. “You have to get in their faces.” I followed her advice, and after I performed my monologue there was a long, deathly silence in my class. I’d scared the shit out of them. That experience might be the root of my writing philosophy that, if you think you’ve gone too far, it’s because you haven’t gone far enough.
Her greatest moment was probably figuring out a way to get my entire grade eleven class to participate in the school’s spring musical. My school was very proud and very snobby about their annual musical, and usually only a select group of gifted students was allowed to be involved. I don’t know how she did it; most of the kids in my class- including me- couldn’t sing or dance. Most of us didn’t want to participate either, but Ms Duckworth lied to us and said that everyone who wasn’t cast would have to do grueling backstage work instead. In response to this threat, almost everyone auditioned, and everyone who auditioned got a part. It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.
Ms Duckworth’s powers of persuasion were limited, however. The year after I was in her class, she asked for permission to stage Rent. She was denied.
She made me examine my idea of what it really meant to be a good teacher. Ms Richmond was whip smart, with a dry, sarcastic sense of humour, and she didn’t suffer fools at all. When you took her Media English class, you were along for the ride, and if you couldn’t keep up, well, that was probably your fault. Her classroom management skills consisted mostly of withering glances. I adored her, because she liked me and made me feel smart. I remember once while she was setting up a video she said, “This is a really good one, but I don’t think any of you are going to like it. Except for you, David.” She told me I should pursue journalism- she wasn’t the first- but I already had my heart set on writing fiction and creative non-fiction. How many people does a teacher need to reach in order to be a good teacher? Is one in twenty an acceptable ratio? Because Ms Richmond genuinely did reach me and changed the way I interact with movies and television. I remember going to see Fahrenheit 9/11 in theatres and recognizing it immediately as propaganda. I looked around at all the other faces in the dark and realized everyone else was accepting the movie without question. Ms Richmond was the one who’d given me the questions.
He was a legend in our school; one of the only teachers to have a bona fide cult following. He taught Latin and philosophy and had been doing so for thirty years by the time I had a class with him. By that point, Mr Lawrence was in his last semester and didn’t give a shit anymore. I could almost forgive that, considering the number of lives he’d transformed. Giving up on a handful of students at the end of your career is only a minor sin. But in that last semester he did something far worse.
There was a girl in my philosophy class who had serious ADHD and no filter at all. Everything she thought, she said. I thought she was kind of funny, but everyone else seemed to think she was a pain in the ass. Every time she said anything in class she was met with a torrent of abuse. Mr. Lawrence allowed it to happen and occasionally participated. And he knew she was disabled. She had an IEP, which is a legally binding list of accommodations given to every confirmed retard. I had one, too. All our teachers got a copy, and all our teachers had to play along.
But I guess her accommodations didn’t include protection from psychological violence, which when you think about it must be at least partially her fault. If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have been disabled. I was deeply disturbed by the situation and felt profoundly helpless. I don’t respond well to feelings of helplessness.
So thank you, Mr. Lawrence, you pompous, lazy asshole. You triggered a chain of events that led me to disability activism and, eventually, to starting this blog.