Student Body: More Pencils, More Books, More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (and "Edible Foam," Scrotes McGoats, Among Other Things)
After my second grade teacher, Mrs. Luciano, made me sit behind a folding screen, I scrawled on the back of it in pink highlighter, “Evan K. has a big penis.” I probably had just learned what a penis was (for the most part) and I didn’t really understand what I was writing — I just knew that saying someone had a big one was funny somehow. And out of all the kids, Evan seemed the most likely, I guess, or like he would be in on the joke.
I was a good student, so I wonder what it could have been about me that made Mrs. Luciano put me behind that screen in the first place? Could it have been my already solidified disdain for authority? It didn’t matter how well I could read — at eight I already stank of insubordination.
Mrs. Luciano wasn’t a particularly nice teacher, and once jammed a stack of hardcover books into my wee arm when I came up to ask a question (that she didn’t answer). So while defacing the screen with profanity (or campaign slogans — depending on where you’re standing) wasn’t advisable, I can’t say I regret defying her either. It’s taken me a long time to relearn that skill of knowing when someone didn’t feel good to me and acting accordingly.
Even shitty teachers teach you something, too. At the very least they gave me some fire to prove something. “Learn the system, then fuck the system” is a pretty good rule of thumb to which I often return.
Conversely, I had a lot of favorite teachers as well. Even though he would yell at us sometimes I learned a lot from my grade school science teacher, Mr. Dunton, with legendary white ear and nose hair. We made what he called “edible foam” (pancakes) on Bunsen burners — I used too much sugar and burned mine. He also led the Wandell Weather Watchers, which I showed up early to school to be a part of several days a week to manually take the dew-point and send it into Accuweather on the then-state-of-the-art modem.
I also remember not long after taking sex ed being aware that Mr. Dunton must have a scrotum under those brown polyester slacks. I didn’t appear genitally-obsessed (and was truly quite innocent), but it sounds like I had a certain fascination. What can I say — I grew up Catholic (and I guess that taught me a few things, too)?
My friend Jen Gaily reminded me recently how our seventh and eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Cevoli, used to say, “Organization is the key to success.” He also had the bluest eyes of any teacher I’d seen, and he ran my first newspaper, the Wandell Wallaby, which seduced me into journalism early.
I’ll never forget Mr. Cevoli telling us about how he saved someone from drowning and as he was giving them CPR they vomited in his face. He had to shave his mustache because the odor wouldn’t dissipate. I have Mr. Cevoli to thank for introducing me to the value of carnality in writing (and Mary Karr for keeping it alive in The Art of Memoir). Thank you, Mr. Cevoli. And you, my friend, are welcome and I’m sorry.
And then of course there was the gym teacher that caused me to have a giant scar on the back of my thigh because she made me take gym even though I had fifty stitches in my leg and a note from the nurse. Someone’s gotta teach you that some people are assholes.
Teachers of the arts were always the biggest favorites (and once in a while big letdowns, because I expected a lot). I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the scent of paint on smocks thanks to my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Holloway, whose art room always felt safe and open for curious exploration. Mrs. Anderson (née Haigh) set the bar so high for music teachers in grade school that my high school music teacher couldn’t quite reach it, to put it diplomatically.
My private voice teacher, however, Maria Farnworth, was a force to be reckoned with — once an opera singer, she was injured when her tour bus got in a accident and she was hit in the throat and no longer able to speak, let alone bellow La Traviata to the cheap seats. After her doctors were baffled, she researched vigilantly and nursed herself back to being able to use her voice. She then employed those same breathing and mind-body techniques to teach her students.
I had a great teacher in my father (still do), even though he was tough.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” he told me once. “But I wanted to make money more.” So he worked in other fields until he saved up enough money to buy a business school in the 60s that had only 19 students and built it from there and my sisters run it today. He never missed an opportunity to teach me something, by telling me to look up a word in the dictionary, or throwing math equations at me (at which I’m still terrible). But I’ve learned the most from my dad in the past few years watching him go with the flow as he declines from dementia. “Declines” isn’t even a fair word, because he’s simply being himself now and not trying to control the world so much with his mind, since he can’t. I don’t think anyone can teach you how to do that, but I’m trying to learn by his example.
Who were your favorite and not-so-favorite teachers? Did you find refuge in the art room? Who helped you find your voice? Ever draw a dick on school property?
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.