If you can read this, thank a teacher

I always found that saying to be a little cloying, though I appreciate the general message. I once saw a bumper sticker that said "If you can read this in English, thank a marine," which I found appallingly xenophobic.

I teach piano, and I have a good rapport not only with my students, but their parents, who talk to me about how their kids are doing in school both academically and socially. They're all, for the most part, fine. But I'm struck at what an impact their music lessons have on them. (Sometimes it's surprising, considering how little they practice.) After all, I see these kids one at a time for a meager 30-45 minutes a week, which constitutes a small fraction of their extra-curricular activities, so I often figure that with piano, they could take it or leave it. Sometimes, though, a parent will tell me that kiddo loves to play a particular song over and over, or feels really proud when he/she learns a hard piece, even if he/she's too shy to play it in front of friends, or kiddo spent an hour at the piano picking out a favorite tune by ear (usually "Fur Elise," "Ode to Joy," or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.")

I come from a long line of educators. I started listing all the people in my family who teach pre-school, elementary school, high school, college, yoga, even Sunday school, but it was getting so long I just gave up. Suffice it to say that when I describe myself as a natural teacher (professionally, I teach piano and coach other musicians, but I can't resist an opportunity to help someone with knitting or bread-making or essay-writing when they ask for it), I come by it honestly.

I've thought about influencial teachers I had growing up. Despite our crappy, dysfuncitonal school system, most of my teachers were good, and several were excellent. My eighth grade English teacher (mentioned in the comments of my last post) was one of those. At first I hated her because she gave us so much homework, but eventually I realized she just wanted to challenge us. This woman had some serious cajones. She got a hold of the reading list for the high school juniors honors class and had us read the books from it; the high school teachers were none too happy about that. She also had us reading books with topics that some parents thought were too adult for 13-year-olds. (There was a local crazy lady who wrote letters to the paper trying to get her fired; fortunately, no one listened to her.) We read "The Scarlet Letter," about an adultress. We read "My Darling, My Hamburger," about a high school girl who gets pregnant and has an abortion. It also has the word "shit" in it, which some people considered just as serious an offense as the plot. We read stories by Poe, and "The Diary of Anne Frank." Most importantly, she made us write. And write. And write. We had to write readers' responses to everything we read. We had to write short stories. That was the year of a gubernatorial election, and we had to write persuasive political essays supporting the candidate of our choice (that prompted some interesting political discussion in class). We had to write personal narratives about an important event in our lives. I wrote about being at my grandparents' farm and collecting wild mulberries to make jam, and it won me a creative writing award, a copy of Sonnets of the Portuguese, which I will always, always treasure.

Then there was my sophomore English teacher/drama director/forensics coach. She was one hell of a lady. Her approach to teaching English was more old-fashioned in that we didn't do much creative writing, but we learned grammar very, very thoroughly. She was also old-fashioned in that she never typed her tests, but hand-wrote them. Her handwriting was exquisite. Unfortunately, I found most of the required reading for her class rather dreary, books like David Copperfield and Silas Marner.

But her role as the drama/forensics director was what made her so special. We lived to be in the plays and musicals. We spent every weeknight at rehearsals and entire Sunday afternoons building sets; the week of a production many of us would skip class to finish the sets. We spent entire Saturdays at speech competitions, sometimes getting up at 6a.m. to drive to the boonies (or Boone County) to spend all day "interpreting" prose or poetry or dramatic excerpts for judges. Mere words fall pitifully short of describing the level of devotion we had for this woman. We clamoured for her attention and her approval. We fought over who got to ride in her car on the way to speech competitions. Hell, we fed her cat. She died on Christmas Eve a few years ago, just a few months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

So I'm not going to get all hokey and talk about why teachers make a huge difference in people's lives and why teachers are all so special. I think we all know how that goes. But I am going to say that it's a damn shame they don't get paid more, despite all the lip service they get. People are entrusting their kids to the public school system 180 days out of the year for 12+ years and yet most public school teachers are paid drizz. College professors don't usually fare much better unless they're hot shots whose salaries are padded with lots of grant money, and those folks are forced to work 80-hr weeks. People balk at paying $30/hour for piano lessons (which is a bargain around here), though don't think twice about paying a therapist with the same amount of education three times that amount for a session. (If you think $30/hr is good pay, remember that 20 hours/week is considered full time for piano teachers, and you have to factor in costs like healthcare, taxes, instrument maintenance or travel expenses, and preperation time.)

Maybe some day, society will put money where its mouth is and pay educators with the same monetary respect that doctors, lawyers, engineers and other male-dominated professions are rewarded. Maybe someday we'll spend more money educating our children then fighting senseless wars halfway around the world.

Maybe someday pigs will fly.


Becca said…
I just wanted to say I really appreciate what you said about Ms. M. Jenn and I were talking about her the other night. I feel fortunate that I got to know her as a teacher, a coach, and later on as a friend. I still get teary thinking of her passing, but she touched me in a way that changed me permanently. I had to present for two hours on Wednesday, and the whole time, I kept thinking I wouldn't have been able to without her.
Suze said…
this post was getting so long, i just had to stop writing at some point, but every time i perform, i remind myself that the reason i can do things in front of people is because of all that i did in high school. it made me fearless, well, almost. i mean, if i could sing and dance in front of the whole school wearing a see-through skirt and fake flowers on my boobs, i can do anything, right?
Jenn Hacker said…
LOL, Suze!

Ms. Moore absolutely, totally, rocked. I, too, hated the reading list, but loved the class. I especially loved her portrayal of the "Spanish Armada". And her giggle was the best, too. Just hearing her laugh made you want to laugh, too!

Oh, and one "controversial" book you forgot to mention from Ms. Hatton's class was "The Good Earth" - or did you guys have to read that one?
Suze said…
yes, we read "The Good Earth"--I couldn't remember everything we read in that class, just that most everything caused a bit of a ruckus among the prudish sorts.
Tooz said…
For what it's worth, this teacher says you're welcome.
Anonymous said…
One of the greatest regrets in my life is not organizing some kind of recognition for Miss Moore before she died. I found out she was in the hospital three hours before I left for South Dakota to attend my wedding, but I still had to go to her bedside. Her funeral is one long blur of a memory that still doesn’t make sense in my head. I am not sure who I would be today if it wasn’t for that woman but what I do know is that I wouldn’t be me.


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