Monday, August 16, 2010

High School Teacher Appreciation Day

Hunter College High School
(formerly the Squadron A Armory)

I was having a talk with someone about mentors and influences, and I hadn't really thought I had many "official" mentors... but it has occurred to me that one need not explicitly and personally take a student under one's wing in order to be an influence. So, here's to two English teachers who I now realize were, in fact, inspirations to me, simply by loving their jobs and doing them well.

Daniel Rous

In addition to being an English teacher, Mr. Rous was also an opera-quality singer, although I don't know if or where he ever performed. When I hear Kelsey Grammer singing show tunes as Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, I think of Mr. Rous singing for us in class (maybe once a year, when all exams were over) and how damn good he was. He also managed to tell my class -- twice! -- that his wife was in labor with their son for four days. (Perhaps obviously, they just had the one.) He was unwaveringly passionate about the books he taught. He clearly adored all his students, and when they didn't adore him back, he just let it roll right off him. I cannot remember ever once seeing him in a bad mood. It was a joy to be in his class, and I hope he thought it was a joy to teach me in return. I remember hating (and having no respect for) at least one book in every English class I ever took... except his. Somehow, he made it so that I appreciated them all.

Parker Baratta

Parker was profane, sarcastic, and fabulous. Rumor had it that he'd had an affair with a senior at one point, and ended up married to her. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it fit nicely with his persona as the teacher who treated his students like adults. He let us in on all the jokes (in particular one obscene joke about a dolphin, but that's not the point). By the time I took his class, I was coasting pretty comfortably in all my English classes. I was getting As without even reading the materials by twisting the assignments into what I really wanted to write about, and I did it with enough flair to carry it off in most cases. But Parker busted me. On my third-semester report card, he gave me a 65. A sixty-five. Now, I'd gotten a couple bad grades from him (one in particular for a truly abysmal Great Gatsby paper about that damned green light), but not D-minus bad. I went to him to ask WHY? He looked me dead in the eye and said, "Because you can do better." The third-semester report card didn't count on the permanent record, and he was using it to make a point. He was right. I could do better, and he f*cking knew it. I got something in the high 90s for my final grade from him that year.

Gentlemen, THANK YOU.

P.S. Elena Kagan, HCHS class of 1977! WOOT!


  1. I've just read a lovely mid-grade novel, THE YEAR OF MISS AGNES, about a teacher and her students. I'm a sucker for this kind of book. In fact, TO SIR, WITH LOVE was influential in my (eventual) decision to teach.

    Here's to Sheri Mangold, my wonderful junior year English teacher. Thank you for allowing us to create our own Spoon River. Thank you for loving the books you shared with us. Thanks for caring about me as a person as well as a student.

  2. I loved my high-school art teacher, Mrs Basi. I took classes every semester because I just liked hanging out in the art room. At least once by myself and another time with the kindergarten class, because she would fit in a "class" around my schedule.

    For graduation, she got to single out one student for an award and angered the three or four decent artists in the class by picking lowly little me "for consistent effort." Two years later when the school had its annual fund-raiser raffle I entered to win "an afternoon with Mrs Basi" and she called to say that as the only one entered for that prize, I could have it whenever I next came home.

    I was really badly organized as a college student, and she passed away from cancer before I got my act together enough to claim my prize.

    I'm sorry Mrs Basi. But I loved all the afternoons we did have together.

  3. Thanks to Caroline and Sarah for sharing your own stories of wonderful teachers!

    I tried to look up both these teachers as I was writing this post; I can find no trace of Mr. Rous, and Parker Baratta apparently passed away two years ago at the age of 75. I'm kind of brokenhearted about this. How dare he age like that? I'm supposed to get 20 years older, he was supposed to stay the same!

  4. Senior year in high school I had a writing class with the infamously hard-assed Mr. Murphy. As it turned out, his reputation was warranted - instead of simply marking misspellings and scrawling a grade, he went over your work line by line and actually made us rewrite our papers, which was totally unheard of.

    By the end of the first month, I saw his dry humor sneaking through, that his tough-ass act was just that, and by the end of the year I not only had learned more about writing than I did in earning my degree, but he was the one teacher I'd drop in his class just to talk to, and the one teacher I always wanted to write to and thank.

    I hope this post will get me to do just that.