Of all the teachers I had growing up, two stand out: Mr. Jackson taught eighth grade science, and Miss Heldman taught high school English and literature. Both were utterly dedicated to their tasks.
Neither were married, maybe because they never quite connected with the right person. Or because they couldn’t afford it. Teachers were dirt poor in those days.
Mr. Jackson had a thousand ways to make science interesting to a room full of restless 12-year-olds. He used an electro magnet to lift a 20-pound anvil a foot into the air. Then he dropped it onto a handful of walnuts.
“Science can be helpful when you’re hungry,” he said, tossing a handful of nutmeats into his mouth.
He turned white daisies blue by plopping them into colored water. He lit up the entire classroom by igniting a tiny square of magnesium. He built an ecosystem in a glass aquarium and then invited us to gather around and witness a miniature thunderstorm. We could actually see the lightning.
Miss Heldman loved literature and the English language. And she was determined to pass that love onto us. She had us memorize the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – in the original Old English – “Whan that Aprille with its shores sote…”
She assigned roles, and the class put on a performance of Macbeth. “If ‘twas done when ‘t’were done, then ‘tis well it were done quickly…” To keep us focused she whispered juicy tidbits about Shakespeare’s personal life. It seems Elizabethan England had its share of tainted laundry.
She had us read short stories and memorize poems. Then, to prove we too could create, she had us write our own versions of a poem of our choosing.
We agonized, we sweated and we complained to high heaven. But we also got the message. Literature became permanently imbedded in our lives.
Discipline was not a problem in either class. Of course, no one brought guns to school in those days anyway. If someone had brandished a .45 in Mr. Jackson’s class, he probably would have used the occasion to launch an animated discussion about the properties of gunpowder.
If it had happened in Miss Heldman’s class, I believe she might have drawn her own weapon from her purse, laid it on the desk and dared anyone to start something. She may have been a pussycat where Keats and Coleridge were concerned, but she allowed no nonsense in her classroom. No chewing gum, no talking and no passing notes.
Both taught as long as they could. Mr. Jackson spent his impoverished final years in the county home outside of town. Miss Heldman had managed to save enough money to spend one week in England.
Neither left much when they died. Except in the hearts and minds of those who sat in their classrooms.