If you were to ask me who the most influential people in my life have been, outside of family, I wouldn’t even have to think about it before I started listing names. Ms. Halpin. Sister Pauline. Mrs. Schlotmann. Ms. Dickman. Mrs. Spencer. Mrs. Timmerding. Mr. Roflow. Mrs. Lewis. Mr. Webb. Sister Francine.
That’s just a small sampling, and I’m sure a lot have you have already guessed what these people had in common: they are, or were, teachers. And the names I listed only go through high school. The list could go on for quite a while. All of these people had a profound effect on the person I grew up to be. And this is just a small sample of the ones I liked. There’s a whole separate list of teachers who had a profound impact that I only fully appreciated years later because at the time I was so focused on how tough they were and how hard they made me work. It was only with distance and perspective that I was able to see how much I learned from them (and that not all of it having to do with the subject being taught). Of course, this is not to say that every teacher I had was good; there were definitely a few bad apples in the bunch. But I was, overall, extremely lucky to have been taught by passionate, gifted teachers who genuinely cared about their students. I’ve even run into a few who still remembered me by name, as many as 15 years after they’d last seen me.
I could tell stories about each of them, and the different ways they engaged me in learning and cheered me on and supported me: how Ms. Halpin encouraged my love of reading and writing, Ms. Dickman’s compassionate support when my grandfather was dying during my junior year of high school, Mrs. Timmerding’s “you go, girl!” answering machine message, left after I’d had a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper, and the way Mr. Webb (who moonlighted, if I recall correctly, as a stand-up comedian) made chemistry the most fun class of the day despite how I struggled to even get C’s in the subject.
But one of the teachers on that list stands out, partly because of her memorable personality, but also because I was well into my thirties before I truly understood what she was trying to teach.
I had Sister Pauline for math and spelling in fifth and sixth grade. At the age of 10, I was already taller than her, but her short stature did not make her any less intimidating. She was four feet eight inches of fiercely opinionated iron will. The first time I ever failed a test was in her math class, in fifth grade – a devastating turn of events for an overachiever like me. But despite my struggles with math, Sister Pauline never gave up on me, and by god, I learned. But that wasn’t even what made her so influential.
Sister Pauline was a staunch feminist who led our Catholic school classes in praying the Our Mother instead of the Our Father, and she was vocally and passionately pro-choice. Something that, looking back, I’m kind of surprised she got away with in our highly conservative community and diocese. Given that probably 95% of my classmates’ parents were solidly Republican, and many were probably actively involved in the Right to Life movement, I can’t believe there weren’t complaints to the principal, if not to the bishop. But, then, like I said, Sister Pauline was surprisingly imposing for someone so small. Perhaps the parents and the principal and the bishop were all intimidated by her, too.
Every so often, when we went in to math class, Sister Pauline would be standing in front of the room with a hard scowl on her face, her lips pressed together in a thin line, and we would know immediately that we weren’t going to be learning any math that day. Instead, she would lead the class into a spirited debate on abortion, or capital punishment, or allowing women to be priests, or any other variety of controversial subjects.
I loved those days. I would have loved them on the basis of getting out of math class alone, but it was also on those days that I learned to love intellectual debate, persuasive argument. I was already a minority among my peers, in that I was being raised by liberal Democrats among a sea of conservative Republicans. I was already pro-choice and pro-women and anti-death penalty. I was one of the few who actually agreed with Sister Pauline from the start, and I learned a lot during those debates about how to defend my arguments and counter others’ arguments. I don’t know if she convinced anyone else in her classes that abortion needs to be legal, or that women should be priests, or that God is actually a woman.
But it didn’t occur to me until literal decades later that convincing us was never the point.
The point was to teach us to think. To teach us not to accept what we were told at face value, but instead to view everything critically, and examine the evidence from all sides, and to question everything: authority, rules and laws and traditions, and even our own perceptions and assumptions.
And here’s the miraculous thing: I learned to do all of that from her. Years before I even realized that that’s what she taught me. I was guided and coached by other teachers in further honing my critical thinking skills, but without a doubt, Sister Pauline planted one of the earliest seeds of one of the most crucial skills I would need in life. Sure, she taught me long division and fractions, too, but guess which of those skills has served me best in my life.
Of course, it’s not something that could be easily captured on a standardized test.
In the age of No Child Left Behind and Common Core and school ratings and funding being tied to test scores, it’s easy to lose sight of all the myriad ways that teachers impact the lives of their students that cannot be quantitatively measured. But they’re equally as important, if not sometimes more important.
Who are the teachers who taught you more than you realized at the time?