5 for Friday: Things teachers have said to me I’ll never forget


photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc
photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

Teachers. Who’s going to build the long overdue hall of fame for you?

Your encouragement leads to new discoveries. To finding inner strength. To believe. Often, in ourselves. Teachers, your words resound in us, regardless of whether we acknowledge it.

Sometimes, the wisdom is in your simple honesty.

Whether it’s a plea to realize our potential, pull away from poisonous peer groups, or, for the love of the Louisiana Purchase, turn in an assignment on time, it’s not always the kind and loving words that shape us. And that’s okay.

Today, I’ll cite five teacher quotes from my illustrious and inconsistent academic career. Two are drenched in acceptance and positive reinforcement. The others? Riddled with truth, and a healthy dose of negativity. No way around that.

Whatever their context or performance on some sugar-coated litmus test, they had an impact on the joker typing this post this morning. For that, my gratitude spans all eight continents and 17 oceans.

What about you? What’s something a teacher has said to you that still bounces around in your mind today?

Here’s my five:

1. “Yeah right!”

My fourth-grade math sheets had cool number squares at the end. It was a little riddle treat for having mastered multiplication of 7s, or some such. All columns had to add up in the lower right square. Sort of like a prehistoric Sudoku.

I liked to add a little zing to the solution by drawing a football jersey with the answer’s number as the uniform number.

One day, when the answer was 12 (the popular quarterback’s digits at the time), I drew my jersey with my last name across the back shoulders. I was going to be an NFL quarterback someday, you know. 

My teacher (who will remain nameless, because I’d feel awful if she were dead, or really sick, or even addicted to “Dancing With the Stars”) nearly vomited a shriek of laughter upon seeing the jersey and hearing my proclamation of pending pro-football stardom.

“Yeah right!” she said after asking me what the jersey was all about.

As of press time, I have no offers to play quarterback, not even from the Canadian Football League. Not that I would have left her any complimentary game tickets or anything).

Maybe I should point heavenward next time I toss a touchdown. You know, just in case.

Even now, at the quarterback graveyard age of 40, I think of this teacher every time I sling another stellar touchdown pass in the annual family Thanksgiving football game among the timid preteens and knee-cramped 50-somethings I kindly consider “toast.”

Maybe I should point heavenward next time I toss a touchdown. You know, just in case.

2. “You’ll probably use the parts you find to bring back the dinosaurs!”

I was lucky enough to have a teacher that could have been a guest on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Honestly. Mrs. Baird was just so absolutely sweet, to every child, even the ones she had to send to the office (not me.)

In her royal blue pant suit, flowery blouse with wide collar (it was the 70s, remember) and eyes that smiled when her mouth did, you almost expected her to bring in cupcakes and a new pet bunny for every child on the last day before Christmas break.

Where some saw awkward, she saw intelligent. Where some saw strange, she saw creative. Or at least amusement.

When the space station SkyLab malfunctioned and began its crashy decent, I dreamed of finding the parts. I envisioned them falling into the backyard, not even ruffling our lawn. I wasn’t sure of what to do with the chunks of space-station garbage; I just wanted them.

Dinosaurs could rest in peace.

Mrs. Baird’s declaration – that I’d somehow concoct a device to bring back the dinosaurs – wasn’t on my mind, but just the fact that a sweet, smart adult would think me capable of something like this …

For the best of mankind, the earth as a whole and my delusions of competence, the space lab fell harmlessly into the ocean off Australia’s coast. Dinosaurs could rest in peace.

But Mrs. Baird’s words lived on.

3. “You didn’t write this. Where did it come from?”

In my youth, I thought if you wrote verbose, long-winded sentences, it was a sign of intelligence. I didn’t want to let the convention of the typical term paper – that of index cards, citations, and order – hold me and my monstrosity of $3 words down.

I crafted my term paper about everyone’s favorite Italian philosopher, Nicolo Macchiavelli, with droning, flowery sentences I was sure to be A-worthy.

Mrs. Spence felt otherwise, and in the age before the age before the age before Google, she didn’t have to prove that my paper existed before I wrote it – she could just say, “you didn’t write this,” and it was done.

Keep the sentences short, dummy. And attribute your work. It won’t kill ya.

A zero.

A zero that couldn’t be surmounted, it turned out, and I wound up in summer school. Lesson learned, though. Keep the sentences short, dummy. And attribute your work. It won’t kill ya.

4. “Maybe you’re just not cut out for college.”

Notice a theme here?

It’s Underachievement Age of my education. The same era in which I got my biology exam back, and felt a gloat coming on when I saw the red-scrawled “8” on top of the page. I noticed the girl next me had a “71” and the boy in the next row an “82.”

Man, these people kind of suck at biology,” I thought for about 4 seconds.

Then I realized the 8 wasn’t the number I got wrong; it was my grade. “Mathematically,” I began my question to the professor after I’d hidden my exam under my books and approached his desk when class was over, “do I have any chance of passing this class?”

I was the educational equivalent of the Cleveland Browns.

He just shook his head. I was the educational equivalent of the Cleveland Browns.

It wasn’t even the same professor who told me I wasn’t cut out for college. This came in another science class, for which my prof offered the opportunity to retake a bombed quiz by visiting the museum he worked for.

I deftly arrived and flunked it again, prompting his observation of my college-worthiness.

I thought about Einstein and Jordan and William Hung and the Pantheon of greats whose greatness was under-appreciated by early critics. Then I consistently spent alternating semesters for five years of college on academic probation, then off.

I did this until I finished my schooling just credit hours short of a bachelor’s degree so that I could leave school to cover the Carolina Panthers full-time for an afternoon paper that shut its heating and air conditioning of on weekends to curb costs.

Felt like the right choice at the time.

5. I like it!

I will never forget his words.

Finally, some good news.

I wish I could remember this prof’s name. I will never forget his words.

He was a kindly older Greek man. Looked a little like Vince Lombardi, at Darren Sproles’ height. Khakis, a short-sleeved white shirt, measured speech with an accent, and honest criticism of our writing were his hallmarks.

When we’d turn in an assignment, we looked forward to getting back our papers with a mix of anxiety and hope. He’d choose passages from our work, read them out loud, and, after a tense pause, postulate on the words we’d chosen.

I don’t even remember what my paper was about. I don’t remember which passage he chose to highlight, to read out loud, that reached him in a simple but good way.

But he did. He read the passage as he walked between an aisle of desks and the room’s windows, reaching the end of the row at the moment he reached the end of my work. He turned on his heel, held the paper above his head, and declared, “I like it!” Whew.

If that professor isn’t around, I hope he’s looking down on this stuff in my blog and crafting his criticism and reviewing my words, too.

I hope he’s still around, dispensing his honesty and the thrill a student gets when his stuff is read out loud. I wonder what he’d think of this blog.

But if he isn’t around, I hope he’s looking down on this stuff and crafting his criticism and reviewing my words, too. Maybe even sharing them with Mrs. Baird or Mrs. Spence or even the teacher who doubted by NFL-caliber arm.

And I hope he still likes it.

teacher quote

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10 Replies to “5 for Friday: Things teachers have said to me I’ll never forget”

  1. Loved reading this! I think all of those teachers would be amazed and proud of your accomplishments and definately your writing! It is so true that teachers have such power in their words. I have taught for years (not anymore) and I am aware of the impact every single teacher can have on student’s lives and who they choose to become. I wish all teachers were more like Mrs. Baird. Empowerment and encouragement can change a child’s life… 🙂

    1. Thanks Chris. I really wish I could have a barbecue for all my favorite teachers. I ran into my high school journalism teacher at the grocery store recently, and she still recognized me!

      I have such a high regard for teachers, especially knowing what great things they can help us do. To a lesser degree, we coaches have that sort of impact too, and have to realize it – you just have to encourage a little, and try not to crush a little soul while you’re at it.

      Writing this made me remember just how much I love Mrs. Baird. Yep, still do.

  2. Teachers really are an under-appreciated bunch aren’t they?

    I don’t remember exact words said to me, but I had a Math teacher who literally pulled me out of mathematical doldrums in high school, when I was failing and didn’t know how not to fail. I will be forever grateful to her.

    1. Teachers are the main thing keeping us from eating each other and eschewing clothing and written language, really.

      They do have that ability to yank us back on track, don’t they? Let’s hope they know how well they’re appreciated.

  3. As a former teacher, I loved reading this and want to shake my finger at some of your former teachers and say, “Shame on you!” It’s funny that the one thing I remember from high school was from a teacher I hated. We had to get up in front of the class and read a paper on what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote mine on wanting to be a writer. She told me in front of the class that I should pick a different field. It has always bothered me that I let her words become an obstacle in getting my work out there. That’s how powerful a teacher’s words can be.

    Another time in college, I was taking a 3rd World History class and for the final exam, I studied three parts (there was way too much info to retain more). One of the questions wasn’t on the part I studied but I still answered the question with the part I did study for. The professor said in all his years of teaching he hadn’t seen such a creative way to take an essay test and gave me a “C”. It was pass/fail so I passed!

    1. Well, I think the teachers do the best they can, and there’s a point at which they’re just being human, and I’m grateful for that. My one teacher should not have laughed at my quarterback dreams, but I’m kind of glad she did. I am glad I was exposed early to a cynical view of me. It’s kind of better than a false sense of hope. But given the choice, I think kids should be encouraged more often than not.

      It can work the other way, too. I’ve always felt I’d dedicate my first book to the teacher who sent me to summer school for English.

      I love that last example you gave. I had a teacher my final semester for Ancient Greek (I know!) who told me there was no way I would pass the class after a couple of failed tests. He said if I came to class every day – not one day even late – he’s promise I’d pass the class. I did, and I tried, and I failed the final miserably.

      He passed me, as promised, for keeping my end of the deal – with a C. Cs were reason to celebrate for me back then.

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