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Honey and Ashes

By Howard Good — February 13, 2002 5 min read
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Can the good that good teachers do ever completeley cancel out the bad that bad teachers do?

Growing up, I not only had some teachers who were boring or confusing, but also a few who were truly bad. Bad teachers are bad in the moral sense. They don’t necessarily lack an understanding of pedagogy or a knowledge of their subject areas. What they lack more than anything is empathy, the ability to feel with and for others, which the philosopher Sissela Bok has called “the very foundation of morality.”

I was never the type to be the teacher’s pet. According to family lore, I couldn’t sit still when I was young, but was always banging around, which may account for my slovenly appearance in old pictures, my shirt falling out of my pants and my hair sticking up in the back like an effusion of wild ideas. I suppose that if I were a schoolchild today, I would receive calming doses of Ritalin. But in those far-off, more pharmaceutically naive days, I received instead the contempt of certain teachers.

Three stand out in my mind with peculiar vividness, as if backlit by the flames of Hell—Mr. Pitti, Mr. Eakely, and Mr. Gimpel.

Bad teachers don't necessarily lack knowledge of pedagogy or their subject areas. What they lack more than anything is empathy.

Mr. Pitti, my 6th grade teacher, was barely taller than his 11- and 12-year-old students. He compensated for his small stature by being the biggest bully in the class. One afternoon, I was slogging through workbook pages like everyone else when he called me up to his desk. “This isn’t your handwriting,” he said, jabbing a finger at the homework I had handed in earlier that day.

“It is too my handwriting!” I protested under my breath, trying to keep my voice down so as not to draw attention to us. I had realized in a lurid flash just what Mr. Pitti was suggesting—that someone neater and smarter than my shabby self had done my homework for me.

“No,” he insisted, “this isn’t your handwriting. I know your handwriting"—(he paused for dramatic effect)—"and this isn’t it.”

“But I used this pen!” I had carried a blue Bic pen up with me and now waved it in Mr. Pitti’s face. “I’ll show you.”

I pulled my homework toward me and wrote my name in the margin. “There,” I said, stepping back with an air of triumph.

Mr. Pitti picked up the paper, examined it for a moment, then gave a short, ugly laugh.

“They’re different.” He dropped the paper on his desk for me to see.

He was right. The handwritings did look different. Even the color of the ink looked different. I felt sick.

“Go sit down,” he hissed.

I haven’t forgiven Mr. Pitti yet for treating me with such scorn. I’m not sure I have even forgiven my old classmates for furtively glancing up from their workbooks to watch. It is the invisible wounds—the wounds to our souls and egos—that take the longest to heal.

These were just the kind of wounds my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Eakely,was adept at inflicting. That year, English consisted mostly of grammar and usage, subjects I found cold and uncongenial, as I also found Mr. Eakely. He was in his 40s, extremely tall and thin, with a head that seemed much too large for his pipe-stem body, an impression only emphasized by the fact that he wore a scruffy rust-colored toupee. Although I wasn’t fond of either him or grammar, I did love the poems in our literature book. Often when Mr. Eakely was up at the blackboard diagramming sentences, I was at my desk in the back row reading Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” thrilling to the stormy music of their lines and their boyish themes of courage and sacrifice.

Bad teachers give learning a burnt, bitter taste that lingers on the tongue.

Because of my frequent unlicensed excursions into poetry, my grades on grammar tests were pretty awful. Once on a literature test, though, I got the only grade of 100 in the class. Mr. Eakely couldn’t abide this; it violated his sense of me as a hopeless moron. Immediately upon returning our tests, and before I could bask in my accomplishment, he said, “You know, the best English students tend to be the worst at literature and vice versa.” He wasn’t looking at me when he said it, but the words were meant for me, and they were meant to wound.

Mr. Eakely’s cruelty was premeditated. Mr. Gimpel’s was offhand, but no less hurtful for that. He was the junior high football coach and, unfortunately, my 9th grade science teacher, a muscular former jock with a flat-top haircut and a ready smirk. One day he was talking about the stars—red giants, white dwarfs, black holes—when he suddenly interrupted himself. “Better close your mouth, Howard,” he said, “before something flies in.” Apparently, I had been listening to him with my mouth hanging open. He imitated my stupid, slack-jawed expression, and the class laughed. I began right then to hate science.

There is a tradition in Judaism that the first time a child studies Hebrew, he is given a candy or a taste of honey. That is so he will always associate learning with sweetness. Bad teachers create the very opposite associations. They give learning a burnt, bitter taste that lingers on the tongue.

Remembering Mr. Pitti, Mr. Eakely, and Mr. Gimpel, my mouth is full of ashes. They all shared the belief that I was a low achiever—that I couldn’t achieve and wouldn’t achieve and that I probably shouldn’t even try. Sometimes, when the moon is dark and I’m alone with my thoughts, I still struggle with the sense of inferiority they took turns embossing on the inside of my skull. It seems a huge price to pay for having been assigned, nearly 40 years ago and through no fault of my own, to their classes.

If I could, I would forget all the bad teachers I had and remember only the good. There were a couple—Mrs. Krevorek, who liked my writing, or at least pretended to, and Mr. Thompson, who introduced me to the Beat poets and Verdi’s operas. But can the good that good teachers do ever completely cancel out the bad that bad teachers do? I don’t know. Some say good can’t exist without bad. Maybe it is a bittersweet mixture of honey and ashes that holds this sad old beautiful world together.

Howard Good is the coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz and has been a member of the board of education of Highland, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and children.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Honey and Ashes

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