Teacher’s Pest

On the March 10, 2013, episode of The Simpsons, the child scholar Lisa Simpson has her first encounter with a teacher who (*gasp*) doesn’t like her.

Recently I was summoned to my son’s middle school for a minor disciplinary issue, and to retrieve my son and his offending mobile phone (which he was using to notify me of a major accomplishment in music). I offered a quick apology to his teacher, a firm disciplinarian. Once we were in the car, my son observed that she is the only teacher whose favor he hasn’t been able to win. He then asked me if I had ever had a teacher who seemed determined to dislike or undermine me.

His question took me back to 10th-grade physical science, and the retired Army colonel who taught our class. Maybe Colonel Hard-man (that’s what we called him outside of class, because it was linguistically similar to his given surname) needed a post-Army-retirement gig, but he had no passion for inquisitive minds, and he expected to be able to instruct high-school students like, well, a drill sergeant. He expected us to shut up and comply.

Needless to say, this was not my style. I was a curious boundary-pusher, some days with an attitude. I didn’t just want to know the “what” of a subject. I wanted to understand why, to understand the data supporting the hypothesis, to draw correlations with other aspects of our study … but to Colonel Hard-man I was a pain, constantly interrupting with interrogatories. His tired refrain was, “That is beyond the scope of this course.” Not “Let’s look that up,” or even, “That’s a good question.”

One day, the Colonel entered the classroom two minutes late and literally hurled three brochures toward me and two equally inquisitive benchmates. “You kids are such smarty-pants … you should go to this new school for smarty-pants.” I looked down to find a recruitment brochure from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a first-of-its-kind magnet school for academically gifted students, then in its third year of operation. And for the first time ever, I imagined that there might be a school where no question was beyond the scope of the courses, and where intellectual curiosity would be encouraged, not squashed.

I applied. I was the girls’ No. 7 alternate, and I received a call less than two weeks before classes started. My family hurriedly shopped for dorm necessities and helped me settle into a residential high school 250 miles from home. That experience was the most pivotal of my education—I was encouraged to explore, discover, and yes, go beyond the scope of any course, with faculty who were eager to help me seek the answer to any kind of question. Earning a bachelor’s degree and then a Ph.D. in chemistry was a piece of cake compared with earning a diploma from NCSSM.

So even though Colonel Hard-man and I disliked each other, he opened a door for me. And I will always be grateful for that. I hope that my son—and Lisa Simpson—will one day be able to identify a significant positive outcome from a teacher who disliked them.

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