i was talking with my friend mark a while back about teaching and teachers who made a difference in our lives. many days are spent at my school feeling as though i’m just a rule-machine, looking for someone to step out of line so that i can squash them with my evil consequences. we talked about those kids who are changed for the good despite how we feel we are (ineffective) as teachers.
one teacher in particular who changed my life was my sophomore english teacher at amelia high school: ms. ferguson.
i wasn’t a good student and wasn’t having a good time in high school up to this point. i had been in the hospital for a year and had to re-take my freshman year, was frustrated and bounced between feeling too smart or too stupid in my classes. i didn’t have good study habits, didn’t want to do the work, and generally made things difficult for my teachers.
enter ms. ferguson, charged with the unenviable task of teaching the classics to 15 year olds. we trounced into her class and awaited the harrowing first day’s torture.
and it never came.
oh, sure – we had to read the classics (great expectations, tale of two cities, red badge of courage, etc.) but ms. ferguson had a gift… she was excited to be with us. she was excited to teach. she looked forward to having us in her class.
she acted. she gestured. she smiled. she frowned. she recited. she danced. she articulated.
she put on mini-plays while reading to us, acting all of the parts, standing on chairs and putting on dramatic airs as she went. she roamed around the room. she called on us even as we hid behind whatever we could find. she dragged us kicking and screaming into seeing that the classics didn’t have to suck.
but what convinced me of ms. ferguson’s coolness was this:
she made us do writing journals. three times a week we had to turn in our journals to her and she would write back to us, make comments, or sometimes just left them blank. we were allowed to write anything we wanted to, as long as we wrote something. some students wrote directly to her. others wrote stories or poems or observations.
i don’t remember much about what i wrote, but i do remember HATING this part of the class. i didn’t know what to write!! i HATED to write!! my hand cramped up, i was embarrassed to let someone else read my crappy writing, i felt stupid – it was an awful thing!
one day early in that semester during study hall, i realized that i forgot to write in my journal and it was due the next period. panic set in and my stomach clenched as i thought about how i could get out of turning the notebook in.
then i thought, “hey! just write some song lyrics in there and she won’t know any better!”
so i decided to write out pink floyd’s “two suns in the sunset” lyrics from the final cut album. it was a favorite of mine, despite the album itself not being one of their better ones.
In my rear view mirror the sun is going down
Sinking behind bridges in the road
And I think of all the good things
That we have left undone
And I suffer premonitions
Of the holocaust to come.
The rusty wire that holds the cork
That keeps the anger in
And suddenly it’s day again.
The sun is in the east
Even though the day is done.
Two suns in the sunset
Could be the human race is run.
Like the moment when the brakes lock
And you slide towards the big truck
You stretch the frozen moments with your fear.
And you’ll never hear their voices
And you’ll never see their faces
You’ll have no recourse to the law anymore.
And as the windshield melts
And my tears evaporate
Leaving only charcoal to defend.
Finally I understand the feelings of the few.
Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend
We were all equal in the end.
well, i quickly scribbled these lyrics out just in time for the bell to ring. immensely proud of myself for having beaten my teacher in her attempt to force me to write original things, i turned in my notebook and enjoyed the rest of the class.
and the next day – oh. my. god. i’ll never forget it as long as i live.
ms. ferguson hands us our writing journals back and i flip to the page with the lyrics written on them and there’s only one thing written there: Hmmmmmmmmmm… it was about half way down the page and she’d drawn a line between two of the lines in the song, pointing to her comment.
i had forgotten to include the humming part of the song.
and ms. ferguson liked pink floyd.
and. she. caught. me.
and i was both mortified and awestruck. i fell in love with ms. ferguson that day – not just because she liked pink floyd, but because i saw her as an individual who enjoyed what she did. she cared about us. she wasn’t trying to “catch us” writing someone else’s stuff – she wanted us to get used to the process of writing. she wanted us to enjoy writing and see what powerful change can be exacted by writing. she wanted us to read the classics and see what those old dusty books with their archaic words and structure told us today not just bygone days.
i fell in love with more than just ms. ferguson that semester: i fell deeper in love with reading and i fell deeper in love with writing – things that have stuck with me 24 years later. and now i teach English at the high school level, too. and yes: i torture my students with writing journals, too.
thanks, ms. ferguson – you rock.