At this time of year, I always like to say thank you to a special group of people in my life. After the psychotic disaster of my first grade teacher, who I write about in my book SEA MONKEYS, I was gifted with a simply brilliant series of clever and dedicated teachers that I remember vividly today.
Like many people, I had only one male instructor in elementary school, Mr. Felton, but he was a real innovator, and encouraged the ability to act things out, which I have to this day. All of my female teachers were in some way hot, vulnerable, and completely committed to what they were doing.
Mrs. Kremser and Mrs. Reynolds were two older women, both in their 50s, but very stylish and strong. Mrs. Kremser did more than any other adult to help me deal with the vicious rape I endured in 4th grade. She introduced me formally to the library, and lobbied for more after school assistance there, so I had supervision, and didn’t have to walk home and risk another attack. A reader and a writer never forgets the first person who really hips them to the power of a library.
Mrs. Reynolds had a very successful husband, one of the biggest time surgeons in all of California at the time. She could’ve been playing golf every day if she’d wanted to. Instead, she made a radical commitment to hands-on learning (and I suspect often used her own money). We got chunks of cow lungs to inflate with Sweetheart straws to learn about respiration. Those fetal pigs in alcohol we got to dissect? I don’t think any school board approved that expenditure. She made that happen off her own bat. We visited puppy mills and dog shelters. We went to the largest paper factory in the state. We toured slaughterhouses and market gardens. We went behind the scenes of the Lawrence Hall of Science. How many 10 year-olds get to meet personally with a Nobel Prize Winner? I’m quite happy to talk about the important privileges I’ve had in my life in regards to people like her. Much less so how I was later treated by the police, or various tax authorities. Mrs. Reynolds talked to us openly her hysterectomy, when we had not one clue what she meant. She removed shame about all things physical and inspired direct curiosity. We touched atom smashers and looked at boob operations.
Mrs. Folger was a young boy’s dream—and also the harshest grader in a math class you can imagine. She ripped us all to shreds, every one of us torn apart. But she had been the #1 cheerleader and a gymnastics champion at Michigan State, so even in her early 30s, she could do a standing back flip if you did manage to get something right at the chalkboard. That’s very inspirational, when a really tough ass female teacher glides out from the behind the desk and does a standing back flip because you’ve managed to solve a simple equation. When she got pregnant, she softened a bit, and would spend the last 10 minutes of class reading aloud Flowers for Algernon.
Mrs. Falaseri had a wicked bob haircut and kind of a piggy nose—but a figure to make you sweat. And sweat we did. We had 42 students in her French class. 42 students in a classroom built for 25 max. How she kept order, I have no idea. She’d worked at the UN. She was in the Bay Area because her husband had gotten a gig. She could’ve been an embittered pain. She brought in French food and copies of Le Monde. She showed us French films and cartoons that were way over our head—and I’ll never forget this, she said, “Another language is always over your head—until it’s not.”
Mrs. Albertson was black, barely 5 feet tall and weighed a good 200 lbs. She stalked the class with a baton, like the kind a symphony conductor uses. She never hit anyone, but she used it like a light saber. She had a very rich South Philly accent, and her breakdown of the difference between diction and syntax remains one of the first things you will hear out of my mouth in a basic freshman university writing course even now. What really is grammar, and why is it important? Well, she was the go-to-gal for that answer.
And what do we say about Miss Berryman, who had a kind of tragic Sally Fields loveliness about her? She was from a tiny rural hamlet in Kansas, and made all her own clothes. Teal blue sweaters, light, gentle dresses, stark, bold pantsuits. She was a straight up kind of genius. I don’t think the idea of buying clothes ever crossed her mind, outside of shoes and the peripherals of underwear (which us boys thought a lot about). I have in front of me right now, a fifth grade story I wrote about personified white blood cells fighting an infection. I’ve been teaching long enough now to know that her comments about character development would’ve taken 30 minutes to craft. My handwriting was so bad, it’s a wonder she read it at all. Can you seriously imagine someone taking the time to help an 11 year-old with “character development”?
God bless teachers. I’m very grateful for the teachers I had at the start, who kicked ass just because they thought that was what the job entailed.