"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Teacher Appreciation Week

It is Teacher Appreciation Week, as I am reminded by a note from the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. The message implores us to tell stories of people who have changed our lives for such narrations are among the best ways of showing appreciation. So here it goes.

As a child (and perhaps even up till now), I was socially awkward. I was in fifth grade and my teacher thought that my behavior was already disrupting the class. It was not just the lack of social skills, my teacher thought I was being defiant and decided to have a serious discussion with my mother. What went into the conversation between my mother and teacher, I would never know completely. All I was told by my mother was that she hopefully helped my teacher understand me better. My relationship with the teacher did improve. That was good since I ended up having the same teacher in sixth grade.

I probably would not be a chemistry professor today if not for that teacher. Being given both the opportunity and encouragement to push myself towards mathematics and the sciences clearly paved the path that led me to acquiring a doctorate degree. It is truly easy for me to recall my years in elementary school. And it is probably for one good reason, feeling understood and accepted for the first time by another adult other than my parents.

Now, I find myself equally interested in a series of books called Big Nate, which my eight-year old son craves to read at every free moment he finds. The books relate mostly the daily struggles of a sixth grader named Nate Wright.  It is partly a comic strip so it is not possible to miss the highly expressive gestures, faces and dialogue. Franklin Peirce, the author, actually draws most of the material from his own experiences as he likewise remembers in great detail how it was when he was in sixth grade. Big Nate is very popular among children. Copies in a public library near our house are often already loaned out and to borrow one, there is a waiting list.


I do not find Big Nate in any way flattering to teachers. For instance, Mr. Galvin, the science teacher, is described as an aspiring physicist who never made it, so he simply became the "most boring science teacher". There are teachers depicted in some sort of a good way such as the African American principal, Mr. Nichols, but the story only points to them as friendly or likable, but not really formative.

Above copied from Big Nate: The Crowd Goes Wild
And of course, Nate Wright's main nemesis in the story, the homeroom teacher, Mrs. Godfrey even earns the following nicknames: Venus de Silo, Godzilla, Dark Side Of the Moon, and Lady Gargoyle. The author when asked in an interview about the Godfrey character gave the following remarks:
Is there a real life inspiration for the character Mrs. Godfrey in the Big Nate series? 
Peirce: Sort of. I didn’t have an awful social studies teacher like Mrs. Godfrey in sixth grade. I had her in SEVENTH grade. She looked a bit like Mrs. Godfrey, and her name was similar to Mrs. Godfrey’s. But really, that’s where the similarities end. My real-life teacher wasn’t my favorite by any means, but she was probably just an overworked, underpaid person who didn’t like children all that much. Mrs. Godfrey, on the other hand, is a caricature. She’s a monster. She’s the embodiment of everything a sixth grade boy like Nate objects to in a teacher. She’s loud, she’s erratic, and worst of all, she’s unfair. She clearly favors some students (like Gina) over others (like Nate). For a kid, that’s an unforgivable sin.
Reading the above excerpt from the interview takes me back to sixth grade. I recently had the opportunity to meet one of my classmates in sixth grade. And as we reminisced about our childhood years, she told me how much I impressed her as a student. I did graduate as the salutatorian of the class. But that was not the only reason why she thought highly of me. In our conversation, she surprised me with something I did not know. Our teacher at that time was apparently tutoring another student after class. That student was the valedictorian of our class. As she was relating this to me, a resentment of unfairness was quite clear from her.

I obviously do not know how I would have felt if I had known this then, but at this point in time, I could only think along the same line as Peirce. Perhaps, my teacher was simply trying to make ends meet. Deep inside, we could only hope that teachers would always have the well-being of the children entrusted to their care. And I still feel the same way towards my favorite teacher in grades five and six. I think I still turned out okay. Teaching is a difficult job and they do need all the support and appreciation we could give.  



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