Throughout the first two fifths or so of our lives, longer for some than for others, they inescapably play a prominent role in our existence. They can open or close, fill or empty our minds, and inspire our dreams or snuff them out. They give us many of the tools we will use to hack away at our various tasks in life. One can love and respect them, or not. In one way or another though, our teachers shape us, for better, or for worse.
I’m sixteen years old, and am a sophomore at Rio Hondo College. Certainly every teacher we have leaves some impression, whether we are aware of it or not, but there are always those who stand out in our memories -- the one who first taught us that productivity and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive, the one with the infectious enthusiasm for learning and for his subject, and the one who asked us to think for ourselves and showed us that we might actually like it. If one is lucky enough to be put into a class taught by a member of this dying breed (endangered species) who compensates students for the time and effort entrusted to him/her with genuine edification, that memory of real education will not soon fade. Unfortunately, for most of us, our roster of teachers tends to consist more of those who taught us that nothing really matters beyond the letter on the report card, who served as models personifying the fact that being an educated professional does not even begin to ensure happiness, and who demonstrate so blatantly that school has precious little to do with learning, and everything to do with, not so much killing, as brutally and venomously annihilating time.
I was recently unlucky enough to find myself the student of one of the latter category of “teachers.” Appearing for the first time only after the third week of term (by which time it was impossible to switch sections) my classmates and I finally met Faye Daryoush, much to the relief of her over-worked, but in my opinion, far more talented substitute. The first thing she announced was that we were well ahead of her other class, and that she intended to keep the classes synchronized and would therefore not be teaching us anything new for a while. I was never quite certain when or if the other class caught up with us, because from that time on her teaching style never seemed to vary in the slightest. Every day, thirty minutes of soporifically apathetic lecture, then an hour and a half of working endless, simple, monotonous problems out of the book while she sat at her desk, arms folded, staring at us, as though daring us to lift our eyes from our papers. At first I held out hope that it might not be so bad, that I might at least get a brief smile each day from seeing a score on my work, but no, they were never collected, never graded, never given credit.
The first few class periods, while unpleasant, were in themselves not onerous enough to put me off my efforts to make the best of it, but they could not hold a candle to the most striking aspect of this teacher’s technique, the immense quantity of homework, which would merely be checked in class to ascertain that every step had been written out, and given no more of her time or energy than that. Math teachers in general seem to be infamous for assigning rather a lot of work, but neither I nor anyone I know has come across one before who so richly deserved that reputation. My mother, a credentialed math teacher in her own right, and one who has been known to give large amounts of homework, read through my list of assignments for the weekend, put on her reading glasses, read it again to make sure she had got it right, and asked me blankly, “Is she crazy?” I didn’t have a very good answer for her, but I suppose I thought it didn’t matter very much whether she was crazy or not. What mattered was that I couldn’t let one math teacher upset my perfectly good 4.0 G.P.A, and to do that, I was going to have to play the game her way.
Having determined this, my weeks started to pass with my evenings, lunchtimes, and weekends filled with very little but working out inanely simple math problems in great detail, punctuated occasionally with a bare minimum of eating and sleeping.
As my psychology teacher was one of the teachers on the top of my list of “those who made a big impression,” and one of the most positive ones at that, I automatically found myself trying to analyze why my math teacher does what she does. Is she so afraid of real slackers that she feels she has to go to these lengths to be sure there will be none left for her to deal with after the drop date? Does she really believe her method is helping her students learn math? Does she believe she is helping us in some other way, preparing us to do hours of pointless busywork later in life -- it not having occurred to her that creating another generation of compliant unskilled-labor-zombies will only serve to perpetuate the glaring flaw in society that leads to such creatures being the necessary norm? Or does she just enjoy sucking the life-lust and love-of-learning out of those who still have some? Honestly? I have no idea. It didn’t take long before I gave up on understanding her psyche, and started examining my own.
I was so angry. I was livid, and I couldn’t figure out exactly why. I’d had many, many classes in the past that had been even less interesting and useful; I’d had teachers I felt I could gain nothing from before; why did I harbor so strong, so personal a resentment for this one? After finishing my third page of the morning, graphing ordered pairs (the same problems I used to draw and work out in the sand of the playground when I was nine, the same ones I’d covered within a day’s worth of class last semester) it hit me. I felt sorely cheated. No other class I’d had, however useless or poorly conducted, had spent so much time being so useless and poorly conducted. . This teacher was not just dull, lazy, and inept. She was stealing from me. Hours and hours were being torn away from me, leaving me nothing in return. No knowledge nor skills were being imparted, at least none that could not be acquired in a tiny fraction of the time. The drudgery did not even make up a decent percentage of my grade, just enough to ensure that it had to be done for an “A” to be possible. These were hours that were adding up to days and probably weeks of my life, weeks that could have been spent practicing my piano sight reading, studying to good effect, being with the people I love, exercising, meditating, doing better in my other classes, getting a job, reading a good novel, perhaps writing on one of my own, and the list goes on. I love learning! and I resent it vehemently when homework stands in the way of my education. Due to the near absence of time left to me that can truly be called “free,” this article itself was only brought into existence by pure bloody-mindedness on my part, dogged determination not to let the very atrocity that inspired this story prevent it from being told.
I have not come to any satisfactory conclusions regarding what can be done to prevent the kind of thievery practiced by Ms. Daryoush (for I do regard it as such), and thus my classmates and I will probably end up playing the game her way through to the end. But, if nothing else, I wish to give voice to the plight of these students, understandably too busy to engage their own tongues, and also to thank every good, honest teacher who understands the fact that life is short, and that the time (as precious a commodity as money, probably more so), which his or her students hand over, is relinquished only in trust and with the provision that it be fairly repaid in the form of education, arguably a more valuable commodity yet.
I expect that there are some teachers who, upon reading this, would dread the thought that I might ever appear in their classes. A similar dread fills me. There may be some who would welcome students like me. I expect, there also, the feeling is mutual.