The Shapiro Files

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ghost of School Days Past

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've recently been on quite the nostalgia trip as a result of many Facebook reunions with grade school friends. For about a week, I felt I was living in two realities: the world of an eight-year-old and my present "grown up" existence.

It's been quite a trip.

As part of this virtual reunion, a number of us have been scanning/posting old photos from our collections and the subsequent exchange of comments have been so much fun to participate in--not to mention downright addictive. At least a few of us have stayed up way too late reading/posting at the expense of our regular daytime capabilities. One of the photos that's caused a particularly spirited exchange was of our fifth grade class photo. Fifth grade was, by far, my least favorite elementary school year for two key reasons: one, my best friend Todd had moved away the previous summer and two, Mrs. Ferguson.

Mrs. Ferguson stands out in my memory as easily the worst teacher I've ever had. Entirely out of touch with the needs and sensibility of her students, her approach to her pupils was comparable to a germaphobe at a leper colony. Her every utterance and every gesture conveyed her undisguised disgust with us. And we weren't particularly bad kids. She just made us feel that way. The result: we became what she assumed we were.

This sort of self-fulfilling prophesy was a common topic among the materials I studied years later while pursuing my teaching credential at UC Davis. I especially remember a research study in which a teacher was told that one of her classes was an honors/gifted class and the other, a standard-level class. But in reality, they were both the same "average" class. Guess which class ended up achieving higher test results at the year's end? You guessed it: the class the teacher thought was the honors class.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Ferguson's expectation was that her students would consistently miss the mark. Naturally, that's exactly what we started to do. A perfect illustration of this comes by way of long-time friend Tammie:

"I believe Mrs. Ferguson was responsible for giving me low self esteem. I had never gotten a bad grade until her class. She really made me feel dumb. After that my grades in middle school were awful. It wasn't until my senior year in high school that my grades improved. I realized at some point that there was some hope for me and completed college with honors. She was a horrible teacher who knew nothing about children. I will never understand how or why she choose to become a teacher. She should have been a prison guard."

Tammie is lucky that she was able to ultimately repair the damage that Mrs. Ferguson did and succeed later in her school career.

Here's a similar tale as told by grade school friend Stephanie:

"I remember one incident in particular when she threatened me and then chased me around the classroom. So as I ran by a chair I pulled it out in back of me to stop her from catching me and she told Mr. Anderson, our Principal, that I threw a chair at her!"

I was there when this happened and I still remember it. It was all pretty shocking. Stephanie was definitely not anyone's definition of a bad student and always a very nice person (still is!) and the fact that she was in that situation was really just hard to believe. And of course, Mrs. Ferguson's embellishment of the facts makes this whole situation downright Kafka-eque.

There are lots more stories like this, but I thought I'd share one of my own. This really isn't as bad as either of the above, but I still feel a sense of injustice when I think about it.

In addition to music, I used to love to write stories and draw pictures. So it's not surprising that I thought I'd combine those two interests and compose what today people might call a graphic novel (a comic book/novel hybrid). I don't remember much about what it was about, but it I know it was a space opera of sorts and was probably a major Star Wars rip-off.

Because we had a combined grade class (grades five and six), we had lots of gaps in each day's activities when Mrs. Fergusen would be teaching the other students and we'd simply have to do some busy work. As a result, I had lots of free time during the day to work on my story. One day, I had my story-in-progress on my desk and I had to get up to sharpen my pencil. When I got back to my desk, my story was gone. I asked the classmate who sat next to me if he knew what happened to it and he explained that Mrs. Fergusen took the entire stack of papers (it had grown to a respectable volume by that time) and threw it all away.

Despite the embarrassment of having to dig inside a trash can in front of my peers, I retrieved the papers and stormed up to Mrs. Fergusen and asked why she did that. Her reply was something to the effect of, "Because you were using school supplies." She further went on to explain that doing something like this was inappropriate and not something to be done in the classroom.

Being so young and fairly inarticulate in such situations, I really couldn't bring myself to generate a meaningful reply. However, I was absolutely shocked that a teacher, someone who should value positive creative expression, would actually discourage me from engaging from such pursuits--especially since it didn't have any negative impact on my schoolwork. Even at that age, I knew this was a horribly misguided value system from a person who clearly should have nothing to do with young people. But even if I give her the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge the gray area of using school supplies for personal creative pursuits, the fact that the handled this by throwing away my work with nary a word of explanation is completely unforgivable.

Years later as I trained to be a teacher myself, I kept thinking back to that incident with Mrs. Fergusen and how incredibly damaging such an act was. She was essentially telling me that creativity and artistic expression has no place in school. What I wouldn't have given for more students who had such creative impulses in my classes! This is exactly the type of thing a good teacher is supposed to encourage and foster in their students. Why would she discourage this? So I could instead goof around with my classmates while waiting for our next lesson?

Absolutely incredible. 30 years later, this still gets my ire up. Great teachers can make an amazing positive impact on the lives of their pupils. But opposite is also true: bad teachers can cause irreparable harm.

As for me, the whole incident made me so upset that I abandoned my graphic novel project and eventually threw the whole thing away myself in disgust. I've never attempted a project like that again, but at least never gave up writing. Like Tammie, I'm lucky that I was able to pull myself out of that self-defeating hole Mrs. Fergusen buried me in. But I bet that all of us in that class still carry at least a little piece of that emotional damage in our collective psyche to this day. After all, the fact I'm writing about this now after so many years must say something in and of itself.

Who knew nostalgia would have such a dark side.


  • I couldn't agree more that your early year educators have the potential to make an incredibly positive or negative impact. If it weren't for my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Divine, I probably never would have gotten the academic confidence I needed to succeed in school. Let's hear it for the teachers who are in it for the right reasons!!! They are making the world a better place!

    By Anonymous Marcie, at 4/14/2009 10:10 PM  

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