[NOTE: In a previous post in this series, I saluted the two best teachers I’ve ever had, Miss Gertrude Weaver (high school) and Professor James Rabun (graduate school). In addition to deep knowledge of history and loads of energy and enthusiasm, each of these mentors brought certain eccentricities to the classroom. What follows is a survey of ways I applied, sometimes without realizing it, their examples while 1) constructing my own classroom persona over a long teaching career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS); and, 2) trying to fulfill what I eventually decided was my mission statement, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable.”]
The “Dr.” is in—I arrived at AFPS with a doctoral degree in hand, but initially I was reluctant to use the title, given that I was not teaching at a college and so was probably “over-qualified” and didn’t want to be seen “putting on airs.” Yet, several of my new colleagues also had doctorates and were not reluctant to use the honorific from the get-go. My first year, however, I introduced myself as “Mr.” As that year ended, I agreed to teach summer school and decided to call myself “Dr.” for those nine weeks, just to “try it on for size.” I soon discovered that my students would call me whatever I wanted them to—Mr., Dr., Agha, Prof., Rev., Your Honor, it didn’t seem to matter. So, I used “Dr.” for the rest of my career, even answering readily to “Doc.”
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Bearded fount of knowledge—I had worn my hair very short while growing up, and I didn’t consider growing either a mustache or a beard until I was in college. By that time, however, I was in Army ROTC, and was required to keep my face clean-shaven, which of course carried over after graduation through my two-year stint in the Army. While in graduate school, however, I cultivated a mustache, which still adorned my visage when I hired on at AFPS. Then, over my first Christmas Break there, in December 1973, I grew a beard, and it has been with me, for better or worse, ever since. So, “Dr.” and beard–see what persona I was aiming for early on . . .?
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Fashion Plate—I guess it was the style of the era, but as I was purchasing my classroom “uniform,” I developed a fondness for polyester slacks and jackets. I wasn’t alone: that sartorial fashion was so prevalent among younger male faculty that the student newspaper featured several of us in an illustrated article, “Polyester on Parade.” Ouch!
Even when styles changed and I gradually replaced my polyester wardrobe, I still had a problem: I am partially colorblind (a red/green deficiency). This frequently led to some odd “fashion statements” from yours truly, at least in the eyes of people who were not colorblind. My wife and children tried to catch any glaring color or pattern clashes before I left home each morning, but they weren’t always successful. And, truth to tell, eventually I stopped caring.
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Jogging—From the time I turned thirty, I jogged regularly, so much so that my principal eventually asked me to start a program called “Intramural Jogging” as part of my “coaching” responsibilities. This activity was intended mainly to, um, “whip into shape” students who were as yet unable to complete successfully the school’s required timed mile run, administered at the start of each academic year.
It was an interesting experience, given the unwillingness of most of my charges to exert themselves in a quest for intramural glory. But my sense of humor did not desert me. I wangled funds from the athletic director to purchase t-shirts, which I awarded to those in the program who fulfilled their timed run requirement under my tutelage. Among the slogans on those shirts over the years, two stand out: “If jogging’s the answer, what is the question?”; and, “Competitive Intramural Jogging: Only at AFPS!”
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“I Hate New Jersey.” “What do you have against New Jersey?” a couple of generations of my students asked. My dislike for the Garden State was real, at least at first. It began with my family’s drive from Georgia to Massachusetts to see one set of parents, a trip that required use of the New Jersey Turnpike (NJTP), no fun at all at that time. And, heck, lovely petrochemical plants with belching smokestacks welcomed travelers heading to Jersey via the Delaware Memorial Bridge. And Newark (that’s “New-urk,” NJ, not to be confused with “New-ark,” Delaware, my home town), was an urban battle zone, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s. Even popular culture occasionally reinforced my acid portrait of the state as a cesspool of crime and corruption (“The Sopranos,” anyone?).
Early in my time at AFPS, my “Garden State phobia” led to creation of “NJ Inspiration Corner,” on the door of an ungainly wooden cabinet in my classroom: e.g., posters celebrating “Ski NJ” (fully-clad skier posed in front of a chemical plant); “Smell Tours of NJ” (from National Lampoon); the “NJ Air Force” (enlarged photo of a mosquito); snapshots taken of various NJTP toll booths by students on “college trips” to Princeton University (AKA, “PU”—“smell tours of NJ,” get it?); coffee cups (“I Love NJ”) and other memorabilia brought back to me by students visiting or passing through the Garden State.
Why “NJ Inspiration Corner”? I used to tell my students, “If you’re not enjoying today’s essay, test, DBQ, lecture, discussion, etc., just cast your eyes on ‘NJ Inspiration Corner’ and realize that, as bad as things are going for you right now, they could be worse: you could be doing the assignment in New Jersey!” (You can imagine the fun I had on our annual “Parents’ Night,” when parents scanned the front of my cabinet and asked, often in all innocence, why I liked NJ so much. . . .)
[Note: Eventually I changed my mind about NJ, at least somewhat. Why? Well, additional lanes were added to the NJTP for one thing, making our journey to Massachusetts slightly less hectic. With time, too, there was a gradual tapering off of the number of trips we made from Georgia to what I sometimes refer to as the “Great White North.” I also remember being struck by the almost “New England” look of a couple of small towns in northern NJ I visited on a research trip while in grad school. Finally, for my sin in tagging Princeton “PU,” in 1993 I attended a summer program there, and the place won me over.]
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Big Bucks! In addition to denigrating NJ at every opportunity, I also began regularly to toss in a catch phrase during class discussions, “That’s why they pay me the Big Bucks!” At first I did this on a whim, but it soon caught on with my classes. Thereafter, I reserved the right to use that line at any time—and did! One result was the creation by an AP student of a poster for my classroom, featuring piles of cash, along with the slogan. Not as cute as the poster above, but more in the spirit of the catch phrase.
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“U-Pun my word!” Unfortunately for my students, not to mention my wife and kids, I am an inveterate punster. On those days when I was in a good mood and full of energy (most Mondays, because I knew my students would be worn out from their weekends and so would be relatively defenseless), I’d get on a roll with puns, each greeted with moans and groans, most of them deserved because of the depths my punning sometimes plumbed. Some brave students even tried to play “I can top that” after one of my puns, but again, if I was full of energy and enthusiasm, I easily beat them into whimpering submission.
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Delaware—How could my birthplace contribute to my classroom persona? Glad you asked: It began with my stating, usually on the first day of class, that, I was “one of the few native Delawareans you’ll ever meet.” That simple declarative statement was almost invariably greeted by the innocent question, “Where is Delaware, anyway?” (which led to an immediate refresher course in the nation’s geography).
I also liked to tell a story about a “Candid Camera” skit from long ago (when the program was hosted by its creator, Alan Funt): Folks driving from NJ to Delaware on the Delaware Memorial Bridge were greeted by barricades at the toll booths and signs informing them that they’d have to turn around, because Delaware was closed for the day. And, because that was a more innocent, less jaded time (social media had not yet been invented), many drivers obediently turned around and headed back to the Garden State. . . .
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Golden Shovel(s)—Once upon a time, I had a very bright, but lazy, group of seniors who seemed incapable of producing the kind of written work I expected from a purportedly AP American History class. When my earnest entreaties failed to spur them on to greater heights, I devised a new “grade” that I drew, first on the blackboard and, if necessary, inside the front covers of their “blue books,” explaining said mark when asked, as only grade-grubbing, college-admission stressed seniors can, “What’s this grade supposed to mean, anyway?”
In response, I launched into a story about how I spent one summer while in high school, cleaning stalls in the barn located behind our house. It was one of the most satisfying jobs I’d ever had, I’d declare: I’d arrive in the morning to find piles of horse manure in each stall; I’d put in a couple of sweaty hours removing the ordure and replacing the straw. And, best of all, I could clearly see the results of my efforts. But, when the horses came in from the pasture, what would happen, I’d ask. My students nailed the answer easily enough: why, there would soon be new piles of manure and smelly straw and, thus, more sweaty work for you the next day. That’s right, I’d respond with a smile–just like what’s been happening lately when I grade your essays!
That grade I drew on their papers? It was a pile of reeking dung, a shovel standing upright in the middle of it. And someone invariably asked, “But what does that grade mean, Doc?” To which I’d reply, “That’s my ‘Golden Shovel Award,’ designed especially for those of you who produce essays full of sentences and paragraphs that tell me absolutely nothing about the assigned topic!”
The “Golden Shovel Award” caught on quickly, especially once members of a later AP class bought a shovel, cut off the handle, spray painted the business end of the implement gold, and presented it to me at the end of the year. That shovel proved a very useful tool, for decades, to return, um, “piles” of less than scintillating “historical essays” and tests. A subsequent class gave me a much smaller golden shovel, complete with a handle. When I retired, I left the original shovel to the head of our English Department and carried the smaller one home with me, where it still enjoys pride of place on my desk.
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[Disclosure: None of Miss Weaver’s or Dr. Rabun’s eccentricities were harmed in the making of this blog post or copied by me in creating my own classroom persona. Oh, and about the classroom philosophy mentioned at the end of the introductory note: I’ll furnish additional examples another time.]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: