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Any Fool Can Teach

Susan Notes:

Paul Orr reminds us that we should get in touch with the Mr. Cs in our lives and thank them. My Mr. C, whose name was Mr. Knapp, is long gone, but I just got up from my chair and bowed three times in the direction of a 6th grade classroom in a small town in northern California.

I remember my sixth grade teacher pretty much the same way Paul Orr remembers his. I memorized "Paul Revere's Ride" because Mr Knapp encouraged self-directed learning and, having the urge to "do something big," I first wrote a 5,000 word paper about the Amazon River, from the point of view of someone traveling it in a boat, and then I memorized "Paul Revere's Ride" because it was the longest poem I could find and I had this urge to "do something big." Imagine my poor classmates having to sit through the recitation.

But I also played spelling and grammar baseball, games invented by our teacher which invoked as much interest in words and sentence construction as in any World Series playoff (I still remember my triumph at discovering, in a Carl Sandburg poem, that "People" could be singular or plural), built Egyptian tombs, made papier-mache maps, wrote plays and comic strips, and along with my classmates secretly learned to play the "Marine Hymn" on the harmonica because we wanted to surprise our teacher, who had taught us to play the harmonica, on his birthday. I don't know if that harmonica skill has stayed with me any better than fractions, but certainly stronger skills survive.

As Garrison Keillor reminds us, "You can go your whole life and not need math or physics for a minute, but the ability to tell a joke is always handy."

(WARNING: If you come to my house I can still launch into
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. . . .)

I would add that my 7th grade teacher asked me to stop writing such long papers.

I ignored him.

I dedicated a book to Mr. Knapp.

by Paul Orr

My fifth grade teacher taught me some really important things, not the least of which is that any fool can teach.

With No Child Left Behind and National Standards...there's been little time for education. At least education as I remember it as a kid in elementary school.

Now I've had my share of teachers from the dark side (I've changed their names in case they're alive and try to hunt me down); There was Mrs. O'Dell in the third grade whose specialty was getting as many kids to the board as possible for a round of humiliation that would make a Guantanamo torture session seem like a day at the beach. In high school there was Mr. Utley, a disturbing combination of Alfred Hitchcock, Beethoven and Dick Cheney. His talent was speaking down to us as if we were so many bugs to be squashed, which of course we were. His voice dripped sarcasm and disdain like ice cream from a cone on a summer's day.

Occasionally a bright light shone forth.

John Canzoneri was my fifth grade teacher. The first male one I'd had in a school overrun with female molders of young minds. He saw something in me...and in the ragtag group of kids assigned to him that year. He saw something in us or, I guess, assumed there was something and decided to ride out the year in the hope that a flash of promise might show itself.

And in fact, it did show itselfâ€Â¦ in the form of the class clownâ€Â¦ Several class clowns. The class clown, of course, is usually the scourge of the Serious Teacher. Amongst educators, class clowns are looked at as trouble; nonconformists breaking the ranks of the sheepfold. These kids grow up, naturally, to be comedians and creators of Ponzi schemes.

But Mr. C. didn't quell the buffoonery. In fact, under his administration, the buffoons flourished. Anyone who thought they were funny was welcome to prove it. Some tried the time-honored tradition of wise-cracks during lessons (I didn't join in, as my sense of humor and courage were still in their cocoon stages). No wild free-for-all was allowed, but instead of the usual withering glare, these remarks were met with witty comebacks by Mr. Câ€Â¦.Leaving us in a state of slack-jawed amazement. His bone-dry and understated humor was his greatest weapon against the razor-sharp tongues of eleven year olds and only increased our respect for him.

But Mr. C encouraged us in another more significant way. We had the opportunity, each day, to get up in front of the class and perform. Whether it was something we thought up or saw the night before on TV, we had an audience. And, in fact, this is where I finally found my courage; As long as everyone else was doing it, I reasoned, it was reasonably safe. Naturally, there were many in the class not given to acting the fool, but no matter. They looked forward to the performances. Besides, our teacher was good at identifying and drawing out the burgeoning talents in most other students.

We also published a class newspaper. Part National Lampoon, part Mad Magazine but mostly nonsensical adolescent musings, it was something the whole class could participate in if they cared to. Its circulation consisted of our parents but we felt like a bunch of Rupert Murdochs (minus the bank account).

Thing is, I can honestly say that I don't know what I learned that year in the usual subjects. I dimly recall a brush with fractions but it made no lasting impression on me; I can't add, subtract or divide fractions to save my life.

I'm sure he was sneaking a little knowledge into our tender brains. But I know now what he really accomplished, at least with me: He very definitely laid the groundwork for my creative future

But if he was working now in the schools, would he actually survive? I mean, in a world where corporate CEOs and politicians now tell actual classroom teachers what to say, and where doing what you think is best for students is a quaint, old-fashioned notion, I'm not sure a guy like Mr. C would cut it.

You might try to measure his success by his student’s ability to remember facts long enough for a test, but if you instead try to measure it by skills in Witty Repartee, Senses of Humor Developed and Confidences Built, you'd be closer to the mark, although such things aren't measurable. That’s why they’re of little interest to educational Big Wigs.

I'd mentioned he taught me that any fool can teach. That’s true, if what you mean by teaching is pouring facts into kids like bottles on an assembly line. But teaching is a connection between people, not a number or percentage you can publish in a newspaper or be touted by real estate agents or blustered about by politicians. It's unquantifiableâ€Â¦with a much deeper meaning than found in the competitive ranking that matters these days.

I wish I could find Mr. C. I don't know if he's still alive because it's been many years since I was a callow fifth grader. Whether or not he is still with us, I hope somehow he knows that my 12 year school sentence was made a little easier to bear because of him.

And I hope he knows that, even though I have no Earthly idea if 8/12s is greater than 5/16ths, when something makes me laugh, I think of him.

I guess the lesson here is that a good teacher can help you learn what’s really important in life, even if it'll never come up on a multiple choice exam.

— Paul Orr


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