Don’t blame teachers for failures
Thirty years ago, I graduated Glen Cove High School, a suburban high school on Long Island. Notices of my high school reunion have been showing up in my e-mail, which has made me go all nostalgic about it.
One of my best friends from high school got in touch to see if I was going. (I couldn’t.) She and I took driver’s ed together with an instructor who would rubber-neck when a pretty girl walked by. We thought he was GROSS.
Dorothy Hamill inspired my hair back then, and my clothes were as much Euell Gibbons as Jordache. For some reason I was always dressed as if ready to assist in the hewing of wood.
I have a stable of memories from those years, and more important, a foundation of learning. In all the time I’ve been writing columns, I have yet to thank my high school teachers. It’s an unforgivable oversight that is about to be rectified.
The teachers at GCHS rivaled some of the eminent professors I studied under at Cornell University. Their talents are evident in the storehouse of knowledge I still retain.
Math was never my strong suit, but Mr. Mike Swirnoff made it seem like a great adventure in puzzle solving. He so clearly communicated higher math’s perfection of logic that it inspired more rigorous thinking in every other subject.
I have a ready knowledge of European history thanks to Mr. Jack Traverse, who stuffed us with information about popes and kings, power and war. Mr. Traverse would come to class in fraying shirts and pants in need of repair, but his lessons were polished to a sheen. The march of Western civilization and the ideas and forces that shaped history came alive in his class.
Chemistry was taught by Dr. Dave Kronenberg, who used to regale us with stories of his son who played the glockenspiel in a college band. We had to memorize parts of the periodic table, understand the process of a chemical reaction and the nature of the molecular and atomic world. When I read about CERN’s giant particle collider, Dr. Kronenberg is the reason I was enthralled.
Learning about great literature and theater from Mrs. Sally Zwiebach and Ms. Barbara Salant was like dipping your mind into a whirlpool. Their infectious enthusiasm and creativity in the classroom was like absorbing lessons through performance art. They made the Western canon’s greats, such as Shakespeare, James Joyce, Orwell and Dostoevsky, accessible and relevant. Applause was called for.
There were others too, whose names fail me but whose lessons are laid down in solid neural pathways.
Which brings me to the tired debate over “failing schools” and what has happened to the public schools. Whenever I hear it, the participants almost always lay blame on teachers. They are so wrong.
Here is what the debate almost always misses: We students allowed these wonderful teachers the chance to enlighten us. My fellow students and I listened to our teachers, participated constructively, did our homework and studied for tests.
Don’t get me wrong: We were normal teenagers with all the chaos of life attendant in that time, but we took school seriously.
Had I been in classrooms with students who disrupted lessons, were disrespectful or were regularly absent and behind, these extraordinary teachers would not have had the space to teach. Failing schools are about failing kids and failing parents far more than failing teachers.
I only spent three years at Glen Cove High School since I graduated a year early and went on to college. But those three years were formative in preparing me for a life of ideas and civic engagement. To paraphrase Henry Brooks Adams, teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence ends.
Thirty years later, the influence of my teachers still enriches and enlivens my life and work, and for that I offer a much overdue thank you.
Robyn Blumner is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. Her e-mail is email@example.com.