Saturday Diary: Junior high, inside and out


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No one liked Grace Brewster (not her real name, for obvious reasons).

She taught seventh-grade math. Not the good seventh-grade math. Not the bad seventh-grade math. The math for the almost made-its, the math that just sort of wasted time until eighth-grade pre-algebra.

Her classroom had no windows. It was lit by putrid fluorescent lights. Unwilling pupils filled its row upon row of desks.

Her textbook was peopled by cartoon monsters telling bad jokes in the margins as the text explained the Russian peasant method of multiplication.

Mrs. Brewster had gray hair cropped close her skull. She was short, and the belts and sashes around her middle could not bring shape to her form. She had a flat, Midwestern voice devoid of melody, and she taught math as if she, too, were plodding through the lessons. No one respected her.

One memorable day, everyone seemed to be dozing, and she lost patience. “Steve, what’s the answer to No. 7?” she snapped. There was a pause.

“What?” Steve said.

“Cheryl?”

Another pause.

“What problem are we on?” Cheryl said a bit miserably. No one was giggling behind Mrs. Brewster’s back now.

“Lisa?” Mrs. Brewster barked.

“I don’t know,” Lisa whispered.

“Gay?”

“I don’t know,” Gay muttered to her notebook.

“David?”

“Dunno.” Another mumble to the floor.

And so on, up and down the rows until she came to me, and I said, “Two.”

Now it was Mrs. Brewster’s turn to pause. Without another word, she went on to the next problem, another dull day in math.

Almost everyone liked Mike Stamos (not his real name, for reasons that will become obvious).

He taught orchestra. He inspired us with his energy and high standards. He seated us from best to worst. There were a lot of violins. First chair, first violin was the best violinist. Last chair, second violin was the worst. I started in almost the last chair of second violin, wretched in the knowledge that I was not good and determined to move up.

For student evaluations, Mr. Stamos had each student stand and play a section of music, the same section for the whole orchestra. We quaked waiting for our turn to play. Well, some of us quaked. Others of us, like Macy Ames, stood and played as if Mozart himself lived within us.

These were my memories of these two teachers for some 20 years. Then one day I went back to visit.

The school looked much the same — the orange carpet, recessed lighting and lack of windows. Most of my old teachers were gone. But back in one of the math pods, I found Mrs. Brewster.

She was the same as I remembered her, except … she was excited about her lesson plan. She showed me the math-based art projects she was having the students do, explaining with obvious pride how the students enjoyed it.

I gingerly shared some of my memories of her class with her.

Her striking ice blue eyes met mine. “I never wanted to be a teacher,” she said in a tone I’d never heard her use before. “But I couldn’t afford college. All I could afford was …” here she named an old teachers’ college in the city. “So I became a teacher.”

She was small, not as thick around the middle as I remembered. And I saw her now as someone who was trying, trying hard, and succeeding, in a job she hadn’t wanted.

After chatting for some minutes, I said good-bye.

In the orchestra room I found Mr. Stamos.

He looked the same, maybe a little more salt in his peppery hair. He still had a lisp and the same enthusiasm. But now he spoke about which students from my years he had liked — Macy Ames, who had played her instrument so beautifully and was a pretty cheerleader besides — and the students he hadn’t liked, the ones who weren’t gifted at music and struggled in his class.

And gradually, like a spreading stain, I realized that he had formed strong likes and dislikes of … 13- and 14-year-olds. He was not nice or fair. He was opinionated and made his young students suffer from his opinions of them.

I left the junior high thinking about how different things look from outside the classroom than inside it.

Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for Post-Gazette.com (lschneiderman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1923).


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