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A Valentine to My Own 'Tough Teacher'

This week I read this essay in the Wall Street Journal, in which writer and editor Joanne Lipman discusses her toughest teacher ever--an orchestra instructor named Jerry Kupchynsky--who, through a combination of high expectations, limited (overt) praise, and insistence on practice, practice, practice, helped his students to succeed in many areas where they would ultimately make their careers: music, medicine, writing, and tech. Lipman (and Melanie Kupchynsky, her co-author of the book Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations) summarize eight principles of "tough love" education; these include allowing kids to accept that failure is an option (so that they'll pick themselves up and try again), pushing kids to practice and do drills for good results, being "strict" instead of "nice," and instilling the importance of "grit"--or, perseverance--in students.

It may come as no surprise that I agreed with everything in this essay--and though these approaches may not work for every teacher (or every student), there is a lot to be gained from instilling a strong work ethic and a sense of stick-to-itiveness in students. But it seems boring and obvious for me to go through every one of Lipman's points and concur with each one, so instead, I'm going to share the story of my own "toughest teacher" (who, I have a feeling, may be recognized by some of the former students in my high school.)

Dr. Quinn* was my senior year English teacher. She was a tall, thin, nervous middle-aged woman, who had grown children of her own. One of the few faculty members in our school who had a PhD, Dr. Quinn was probably the smartest teacher I ever had. She also had a reputation for being the craziest: I distinctly remember her gesticulating wildly as a means of conveying Raskolnikov's mental state in Crime and Punishment, leaping onto a chair and bursting into song--"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," to be exact--when we read The Grapes of Wrath, and sobbing inexplicably (to us 17-year-olds) at the end of the film version of James Joyce's "The Dead."

She was an impossibly difficult grader--though she would sometimes cry over your grade with you when you appealed it. (It didn't help that she would habitually change our assignments on the spot, or misplace the essays we had turned in before she had a chance to return them to us.) But when you came to speak with her about your grade, her rationale was always sound. "Dig deeper," she'd tell me, and show me how an alternative or more unusual reading of a certain phrase or word could yield an entirely different meaning. She pushed me to look at the "weird" in texts--to not shy away from uncomfortable interpretations (Oedipal, Freudian, homoerotic) just because they were . . . well . . . icky, to a twelfth-grader. No other teacher ever taught me to read so closely, or to analyze so deeply.

Many of the kids couldn't stand Dr. Quinn; they thought she was unhinged. One of my brothers, when he took her class four years after I did, remarked irritably that having Dr. Quinn as a teacher was like being taught by a hyperactive mosquito.

I loved Dr. Quinn. I found her somehow infinitely sympathetic. I think it was because I saw enthusiasm behind her emotional outbursts, and genuine care in the reams of comments she would write on your paper (when she didn't lose it) before she inevitably gave you a B-. When we read Shakespeare's Twelfth Night around Christmastime, she got us all tickets to a weeknight production of the play at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C. I had been playing Maria in class (a part she had given me with a wink, knowing that Ben, our floppy-haired, Harvard-bound valedictorian on whom I had a desperate crush, was playing Sir Toby); as I got on the school bus after the show, she smiled and said to me, "Well, Maria, were you inspired?"

I remember that Dr. Quinn's mother was dying during the year that she taught us. There was one day when she was trying to explain something to us, and somehow connected whatever it was--quite tangentially, I imagine--to a conversation she had just had with her mother, in which the latter had claimed to see "little men" in the corner of her hospice room. Dr. Quinn recounted their conversation to our 12th grade class. Everyone laughed nervously, unsure of the proper response. Then the bell rang, and we gathered up our stuff. Most of the class left promptly.

I stayed behind. During the post-bell scramble, I had seen Dr. Quinn go and stand by the window, looking forlorn. Now I approached her cautiously. I had been right--she was crying. I came up to her and awkwardly put my arm around her. She was significantly taller than I was, but she bent over and hugged me, and so I held her back. She cried for about a minute. Then she regained her composure, and seemed embarrassed. "You're late for class! Shoo! Shoo!" she said, gathering my books and coat for me and bundling me out of the room. She didn't look me in the eye for a couple of days afterwards, and I understood that I wasn't to discuss what had transpired after class. Then, she was back to normal . . . or what passed as normal, with her.

I got a B+ in Dr. Quinn's class. We kept in touch for years. I think I understood on some level that she was the teacher I would become**, albeit more brilliant and less organized than I, several years down the line.

* As usual, I've changed names.
** Read my book about the teacher I would become, available here.

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