Monday, November 16, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Eleanor Spears, 7th Grade English

Eleanor Spears at Spalding Drive Elementary school in Fulton County, north of Atlanta, seems more remarkable to me every year that I teach seventh grade myself. 

We had no books, not even workbooks, only a classroom set of very dull grammar exercises. We sat in neat rows. We met her class just before lunch, just after a class called "Spelling" where my classmates mercilessly reduced the soft-spoken spelling teacher to tears by interrupting and ridiculing her. (I didn't -- that class was agony for me.) But then we'd file across the hall to Mrs. Spears, who never raised her voice, never punished anyone, and never had to. We never interrupted. We never misbehaved. 

How did she do it? That's a mystery to me even today. A student once paid me the compliment, "You're strict, but it doesn't feel like it." That's how it felt with Mrs. Spears, and she was much more successful at that than I've ever been.

[Photo:  While we had no class text to read, Mrs. Spears did show us Encyclopedia Brittanica's short film of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The discussion that followed taught me how to test theories with citations of evidence from the story itself.  I now show the same film to my classes.]

What she taught was, I'm afraid, superfluous. My verbs had agreed since third grade, and I'd used commas and quotes correctly since fourth grade at least. From her I learned easily to diagram sentences, and never have found any use for doing so. 

What she did for her students, however, was to encourage what was good in our writing. It's the same technique that Dr. Sclater would use to teach me music composition (read more). From time to time, we would take a break from grammar exercises, and she would have us write stories that we could read aloud to the class. 

My first story was, I'm afraid, more sermon than story. It told of a boy who wanders off alone in a public place and gets in trouble with delinquents. He escapes, barely, and concludes that he has learned his lesson. She praised it to the class as a prime example of "dry humor."   I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained, "The story seems to be serious, but that's what's funny. It makes fun of that kind of preachy story that tries to teach children a lesson." 

She was wrong (or, as I think now, she was pretending to be wrong). I truly had taken my preachy story seriously. But I tried from then on to live up to her opinion of my work. 

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