Everyone remembers a bad experience with a teacher and I am no different. Except for the fact that I remember MANY bad experiences with teachers and have tried to blame many of my learning problems later on in life on them. Fifth and sixth grade proved to be a particularly harrowing time for me in the “bad teacher department.” In fifth grade we started getting specialized teachers for certain subjects. The science teacher for those grades was Mr. Nelson. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had in my entire academic career and frankly I was looking forward to the change in scenery. His teaching style was different, dare I say refreshing. He would play albums filled with titles like “What is the Milky Way?” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas” while we worked on certain in-class projects independently. But my hopes for a new type of learning experience were quickly extinguished when I realized an important fact: Mr. Nelson hated me. I didn’t follow every classroom rule, but was no better or worse than any other kid in the class. Sure, I secretly enjoyed chanting the altered versions of Mr. Nelson’s science tunes with my classmates when he wasn’t listening (in our revised version, the sun was a mass of Mr. Nelson’s gas), but to my knowledge, I never did anything incorrigible or different than any other fifth grader. I know what you’re thinking…”Oh please, Barbara, you were just a sensitive kid who remembers the situation playing out this way when in fact you were treated no differently. No, no, no. I have witnesses.
When kids got a bit unruly and weren’t able to settle down, Mr. Nelson would always pick on me and say, “Barbara, you’re talking when you shouldn’t be; go stand in the corner.” He even had a special dunce cap you were forced to wear in these instances and let me tell you, I had to wear this thing so frequently I began to resemble a cone head from the famous Saturday Night Live sketch. An even greater offense was chewing gum in Mr. Nelson’s classroom. I wasn’t the only kid singled out for this, but again it always seemed like I was first in line for getting caught. Guilty parties had to place the chewing gum on their noses and keep it perched there for the rest of the class.
To make matters worse, I wasn’t exactly the best student in the class. In an effort to beef up my grade, I asked Mr. Nelson if I could do a project for extra credit. He allowed it and I thought my luck was about to change. I planned to do a project on the theory of electromagnetism using a horseshoe magnet and magnetic particles to demonstrate movement and the magnetic field. I was confident I would score a great grade and maybe even some much needed brownie points with Mr. Nelson. But the day I demonstrated my science experiment to the class, the magnet no longer had a charge (yep, probably should have checked that beforehand). The particles didn’t dance around like they were supposed to; they just sat there. Not only was the experiment a flop, but Mr. Nelson berated me in front of the class for taking up “valuable class time” and said I would lose credit because the experiment didn’t work. I would have received a better class grade if I had just stuck to chanting about Mr. Nelson’s gas. To this day, it’s hard for me to look at a magnet without breaking into a cold sweat.
We went on a lot of class trips with Mr. Nelson, mostly to the Hall of Science and Alley Pond Park. During one trip, I was told I couldn’t be on line next to my friend Laurie because I was too chatty. When it was time for lunch, I realized I forgot mine at home. You can imagine how pleased Mr. Nelson must have been to hear this from me. Laurie’s mom was the class mom for this trip and she convinced Mr. Nelson to let me sit with Laurie just for lunch so she could share the sandwiches she had brought. After much hemming and hawing, Mr. Nelson acquiesced with the strict reminder that I must immediately leave Laurie’s side once that half a tuna fish sandwich hit my stomach. If it weren’t for the kindness of Laurie’s mom who knows how the day would have turned out.
In sixth grade I had Mrs. Greif for math and homeroom. Her name really should have been Mrs. Grief because all she gave me was grief. When I didn’t get a math concept she would announce to the class, “Barbara, when I had your brother in my math class two years ago he understood this right away; why can’t you?” So much for the “every child is a snowflake” theory of education; the party line with Mrs. Greif was “How did your parents end up with one bright, adorable math whiz and one of you?” We sat at tables of four in math class and my seat faced Mrs. Greif’s desk. One day she announced to the class, “Barbara, I’m sick of looking at your face; switch seats with Cha-Cha.” So now I was stupid and hard to look at. Does wonders for a young girl’s confidence at age 12.
Of course it wasn’t all bad and there were some accepting, caring, and progressive educators at the school. One teacher who stands out for me is Ms. Rifkin, my social studies teacher in fifth and sixth grade. Before Ms. Rifkin, every teacher was Miss or Mrs. and Ms. was just coming into vogue. Everyone pronounced it Mzzzzz Rifkin because if you got it wrong, she would correct you. Ms. Rifkin was younger than many of the other teacher and she had long blonde hair and braces…the first adult I’d ever seen with them. Ms. Rifkin always let you do extra credit, praised everything you did, and never took away points for extra effort. She challenged our young minds with thought provoking and even risque topics. We learned how to debate and some of the topics had very adult themes. My topic was should prostitution be legalized. My mother was a bit appalled and embarrassed taking me to the library to research this topic when I was age 12, but she abided by the teacher’s rules. Ms. Rifkin had the best intentions, but perhaps some of the topics were a bit too lofty. One student was assigned the topic of plea bargaining and asked to debate if it should be allowed. The next day the student came into class and passionately explained that all people should be able to participate in flea markets and hawk their wares. So perhaps not everything that Ms. Rifkin attempted went off without a hitch, but I give her an A for effort. I guess I need to give all these teachers an A for at least creating a lasting impression.