Monday, September 6, 2010

The Lesson

A week before fifth grade started, my friends and I walked up to Laguna Hills Elementary to check out our fate. Critical issues hung in balance and beyond our reach: Teacher, classroom, and whether we’d get to stay together. A different state or a classroom wall; it didn’t take much to lose a friend. We were savvy kids and, between the three of us, already had about 30 states we called home.

When I saw my name on Miss Coogan’s roster, I wailed. “Oh no, not old lady Coogan!” Kim and Jane were with me at the time; they commiserated, but with relief. Their names were on Mr. Fletcher’s list. The only male teacher in the whole school, we had issues with him as well. He dressed like a father and wasn’t the least bit sweet, but he took students on field trips to the ocean, and kept a live octopus that spit ink in an aquarium next to his art supply and cleaning cabinet.

Though pretty cocky 10-year olds, Miss Coogan scared us. I think Miss Coogan even scared our parents. She was short, really short; probably due to shrinkage. She had gray hair in tight curls, and weighed about 5 pounds. She wore some weird stockings rather than pantyhose; we knew this because on hot days she rolled her hose down and kept them just above her knees with rubberbands.

When she was playground proctor, she’d point to a transgressor with her middle finger, and to make matters worse, wag it.

On this particular day, in the midst of my complaining, the classroom door swung open, and a wizened face looked at the three of us and then fixed on me. “So, who thinks I’m old lady Coogan?"

“That wasn’t us,” I said, dodging, artfully. “That was three other girls and they just left.”

My mom would have already taken me to the drugstore for supplies – the things I absolutely had to have for the first day of school -- the zip-up notebook with plastic pen and pencil protector, PeeChee folders, magic markers, black eraser. All the things I’d lose in a week or two.

Obviously, Miss Coogan never thought I said those mean words, because that whole year, she was extremely kind to me. One day I came to class crying because my dog had died (Heidi #1), and she put her arm around me. She liked my poetry, and gave me books by poets who were also pretty good. And when I was put in a gifted program, one where we moved at our own pace and graded our own work, she never questioned my straight-A performance.

Odd as this may sound, Miss Coogan was the first old person I ever knew on an intimate, day-to-day basis. As the child of immigrants, I had no grandparents, let alone great grandparents. And old people didn’t live in subdivisions built for traveling executives.

So though I never forgot she was old, I eventually ceased to hold it against her. I’m sure Miss Coogan has long since gone to that great chalkboard in the sky, she and her wagging middle digit. But she gave me good advice. One I particularly remember though never really followed, “You’re a smart girl, Karin. But one day you must also learn to try.”

54 comments:

  1. I had a teacher like that in 3rd grade. Miss Hannah was a spinster and a tough old bird. I remember once getting my hand swatted with a ruler and I never knew why but I didn't ask either. The only thing I remember about her class was she had cool coloring sheets.

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  2. Delightful story, Karin. Anyone who can remember PeeGee folders is doing pretty well in my book. Sounds like Miss Coogan was a good Old Lady after all.

    "One I particularly remember though never really followed, 'You’re a smart girl, Karin. But one day you must also learn to try.'" Yes, it appears we have the same disease.

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  3. Is there any place you haven't lived?!?! Ah, fifth grade, a truly seminal year--love this post

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  4. Great, timely story. Thanks for sharing it. As a professional advice-giver, I always appreciate other professional advice-givers remembered fondly.

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  5. I would have loved to have known you back then.

    This is just great, Karin.

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  6. Great story Karin...
    You have been everywhere!
    So was this Laguna Hills in Orange County?

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  7. A teacher's influence can be profound.

    Even if you didn't take her advice, at least you remember it. I assume now you understand its meaning in a different way than you did then.

    I loved my 5th grade teacher. Mr. Funk. You don't forget a name like that. He was the best.

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  8. Oh and our principal at the time was Dr. Fink. I'm not making this up.

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  9. Yes, indeed, Pat. Don't tell me we went to school together.

    Thank you all for remembering Miss Coogan with me. What a lovely woman she was to so instantly and completely forgive a nasty little girl like me.

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  10. Nah, I didn't go to school there, but I live in Laguna Niguel, right around the corner!

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  11. Love the story. Brings back memories of an old teacher of mine; unfortunately she was not kind, and if she had used her middle finger, it's message would have been unambiguous.

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  12. I went to a Catholic elementary school and, sadly, nary a nun left me with fond memories. I especially remember my 7th grade nun, Sr. Ann Patrick. She was very tall and very pretty...and very crazy. She was famous for throwing things: erasers, chalk anything that was at hand, even a hi-fi stereo complete with records.

    She decided my bangs were too long and so one day at recess she just grabbed them up in her hand, took out her scissors and chopped, leaving me with little spikes sticking straight out of my hairline. I was so shocked I just ran--all the way home. Mom was not amused and paraded me back to school without a word. I thought for sure I was in big trouble, but Mom gave that Sister and Mother Superior what for and made them apologize to me. She instantly transformed into my hero.
    Of course until my bangs grew back in I walked around looking pretty weird, but I'll never forget the fire in my mothers eyes. Mom didn't go to battle often, but that day she was brilliant.

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  13. PS Shortly thereafter, we got a new teacher. Sr. Ann Patrick was never seen again. Oh, and I went to a Public High School. Yay.

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  14. It takes some derring-do to wear stockings like that. I'm glad Miss Coogan ended up with you on her roster, KB. I'd lay money she remembered you til the day she went to that chalkboard in the sky. {I mean that in a good way!}

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  15. All this talk about old teachers is making me nervous.
    V

    PS Vat de hell is a peegee folder?

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  16. Being a 5th grade teacher, I love stories like this. I have grey hair, but my students don't think I'm old. Or maybe they are pretending...

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  17. Being a 5th grade teacher, I love stories like this. I have grey hair, but my students don't think I'm old. Or maybe they are pretending...

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  18. Bayside, that's chilling. You know, I don't think I've ever heard a warm and fuzzy story of Catholic school. And to think there's a fringe group calling for the reinstatement of corporal punishment.

    Shell, me and about 10,000 others probably.

    Hi Patti. Thanks for coming by. I have a mater question which I'll put on your blog.

    Virg, they were the orange folders that had had an inner pocket on either side. Googled, and learned they were discontinued in 2000.

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  19. Okay Mister Earl.
    When Dr. Fink retired he was replaced by Dr. Gogo. (Seriously, I am not making this up.)

    Bayside, I like your story about your mom.
    Many years ago a friend took me to see a musical called "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" It was based on a book about Catholic schools and nuns and all that. My friend, who was raised Catholic, laughed through the whole thing. I was horrified. To me it appeared to be a rollicking musical about child abuse.

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  20. Mine was Old Lady Dunlap in grade four.....except I NEVER got to go in with the gifted kids pfsssssttttt!

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  21. Great story. I love the vivid details (the wagging middle finger, the gray tight curls and the weird stockings) and how you ended up connecting with Miss Coogan. Love the ending too and all these interesting anecdotes you inspired.

    RIP Miss Coogan and Heidi #1.

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  22. Petrea: It's true. We were not allowed to were patent leather shoes and in eighth grade we were told that if we ever had to sit on a boy's lap we should first put a telephone book on his lap. I mean, doesn't everyone carry a telephone book around. Really, you can't make up this stuff.

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  23. Karin, this is such a nice piece of writing. Love the last line.

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  24. You under-achievers! I heard this teacher line once (not about me): "That boy's got a million-dollar brain, and he's using about a nickel's worth." The boy, grown up, loved to repeat that.

    I think I've wondered out loud here before, Why do we all love to think we were renegades, whether or not we were? When was the last time you heard someone say, "I was such a good little kid, and I'm so glad I was . . . " ???

    AH of course WAS a renegade . . .

    Bayside, I've also heard about the shoes and the phone book (in Detroit!) That line got around, I guess. It's a whole new understanding of Catholicism for me. Wow.

    AH, add me to the list of those who like your . . . reconciliation? . . . with the crusty old teacher. Crusty old teachers with rubber bands need a pat on the head.

    But how can a teacher not know NOT to use that middle digit? I must've known three or more who did that, and it's not like the meaning ever was a trade secret . . .

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  25. Hah, Banjo. But I always thought I was a good girl, and always amazed when others thought I wasn't. From the time I first entered school, teachers complained I argued too much, and, you know, I'd like to argue that point. That's how I learn.

    Margaret and Susan, thank you. Petrea and Bayside -- surely someone must have a good nun story. Anyone?

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  26. Pee Chee folios: I've done a little research today. There are many blogs and other websites devoted to Pee Chees. There is even a Facebook page! Much of the commentary concerns the drawings people made on their Pee Chees. The Pee Chee came with action drawings of student athletes in several sports. People would change the athletes faces and garb and draw cartoon bubbles with the things that the characters might be saying.

    I learned that Mead may still make some Pee Chees but in very limited quantities. Mostly they are relics. Apparently, they were not available in the East or the South, which explains Virginia's unfamiliarity.

    Finally, I must confess that I never owned a Pee Chee. I was a binder person and never had use for a Pee Chee, but they were everywhere. They were like a fixture of school life that I accepted, but never fully understood.

    WV: goness, as in the state of the Pee Chee .

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  27. Petrea: Sounds like you went to the school of Four-Letter Word Teachers.

    Banjo: I think I was a good kid. My rebelliousness was subtle and came later. In the very early years I was scared to death most of the time. In second grade, I hit my stride when Miss Anderson had us do arithmetic by making cutouts of construction paper. It was combining the different colors that had me stoked. When I was in the fifth grade, my mother came back from a parent-teacher conference and told me that my teacher thought I was too quiet. This was a shock to me, and made me feel strange and betrayed for a long time.

    Only in later years did I understand that I didn't try hard enough. In college, after I got the highest grade in a history class, and received praise from the professor, I confessed that I didn't study that hard and felt guilty about it. He told me that I shouldn't feel that way because I had a gift for being able to grasp and synthesize information. But I know that if I had worked harder, things would have been different. Not necessarily in a good way, but different. Of course, there are lots of reasons I didn't work harder.

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  28. I was such a good little kid, and I'm NOT glad I was. IN some ways, I regret being so damned obedient all the time. I was rebellious only when there was a righteous need--that is, to defend someone who needed defending. That I can be proud of. It would have been great, though, if I'd been brave enough to defend myself as well.

    I don't have any nun stories. I've never met a nun, that I can remember.

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  29. I didn't know that nuns in both the US and the UK were so concerned about sitting on laps - someone at the Vatican must have issued a papal bull about it. My Scottish friend was told to separate herself from her boyfriend by using a newspaper - and it had to be a quality broadsheet, not a tabloid. I guess she always kept a copy of The Scotsman in her purse.

    Petrea, can we have some more names of your teachers? They're too funny! I can't compete, though I did once have a physics teacher called Mr Ion.

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  30. Arguing back then was considered a sign of disrespect so I imagine your precociousness would land you in hot water. These are sweet stories

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  31. Bellis! You crack me up. I'm so glad you're back.

    I've already given you the best teacher names I can remember. We did have a Miss Hendershot. She married Dr. Fink. And then there was Mrs. Burchard. She taught English and drama. I never got to have her for English but I had her for drama. She was wonderful.

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  32. I went to Lutheran school for 4th, 5th and 6th grade and was constantly asking some question about the bible that would have me dragged in front of the chapel for the student body to pray for my soul.

    It's funny about the telephone book on boys laps speech. There must be a religious school memo that goes out about it. We all got that lesson in 6th grade. It happened as part of the special girls-only PE class where our embarassed and seemingly grief-stricken PE teacher lectured in hushed, confessional tones about the gravity of puberty and the biblical message of our special time of the month. (Message: God would never get over the apple and we just had to deal with it.) Ad for all those weird and confusing feelings, and the weird and confusing laps of boys, the telephone book was our friend. We needed to always remember about the telephone book.

    Of course my friend Mary and I howled about it behind the Boy Scout hut -- our hallowed place where we would sneak away at recess to try to impress the bad boys in our class, David and Lawrence.

    David seemed kind of freaked out about the whole conversation but the next day Lawrence brought a modified phone book to school and left it on the PE teacher's desk. He had taken his dad's 2 1/2 inch diameter drill bit and drilled a hole right through the center of the Yellow Pages. I had to hand it to him for figuring out how to game the phone book system.

    They prayed for his soul, too.

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  33. Funny story, Laurie. Of course, nowadays, we don't have phone books, we just have iPhones and Blackberries. Put them on vibrate.

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  34. Aging: In younger days at the junior high, the Manhattan Yellow Pages was the recommended barrier. Now at Leisure World, a Kleenex works just fine.

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  35. Seems to me they should have been using those phone books on the priests.

    Thanks Earl, you can find some stuff! You're right, we didn't have those folders here in the south, we were still writing in the dirt with a stick.
    V

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  36. Do you still wonder if you could have tried more?

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  37. Oh Laurie, what a story. All of these are superb, including P's lessons in drama.

    Funny phone books were such an indispensable religious tool. The original laptop.

    I had a third grade teacher named Mrs. Clap. That's the best I can do.

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  38. AH, "I always thought I was a good girl, and always amazed . . ." That's a touching sentence. And yes, I think the value of discussion and debate was a charade for the longest time, maybe still is. I don’t trust it to be valued as highly as educators say we want it to be. A control thing for sure. Also, of course, people can get hurt. But they also learn stuff that lasts way beyond the next regurgitation test.

    This is a great discussion with great tales. Does it have to stop?

    Earl, Petrea, Laurie, Virg, thanks for the stories, the laughs. And Earl, “made me feel strange and betrayed for a long time.” I like that. It seems familiar; it's poignant.

    AH, I hope you're noticing how your stories generate this kind of response from so many different and smart people.

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  39. I don't remember those folders either. I'm from Illinois.

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  40. If you want, Banjo, I could start telling you my upstart church-going stories. That's where I was rebellious.

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  41. So many touching and funny stories. My education was a mix of excellent DOD schools and just average public schools. I wish they had all known more about learning differences/disabilities in girls back in those days. Life would have been a lot less confusing.

    My husband, on the other paw, is from Cajun country and had a small town, Catholic upbringing. One day he called a nun a liar when she told him that his Baptist grandmother was going to burn in hell. I can't recall the immediate outcome except to say that things definitely didn't turn out well for him. I can tell you loads about the long term effects though. Some things just stay with you - and your spouse - forever.

    V, were those hickory sticks?

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  42. This is a sweet story. My idiot parents moved too much, and I never got to know any teachers before high school.

    As for homeschoolers moving into high school, it goes just fine. They've learned to deal with adults because that's most of their associations, and they deal with kids in social settings. There are almost always some kids they've met before, and they're viewed like the kids who move from the parochial school - just a minority in the greater picture of the public school. And since I'm a harder teacher than the ones at the middle school, Ryan's guaranteed not to struggle in classes, and will have no problem keeping up, therefore, time to joke around.

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  43. As for the priests and the phone books.....WHACK, maybe that will calm the urge...Father.

    And I think I had a reputation as being tough as a third grade teacher. I dearly hope that once they were in my classroom that they learned that yes, I had rules and boundaries but that we were a community of learners.
    It's hard being a teacher.
    V

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  44. I love all the storytelling here.

    'Tis the season of the teach.

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  45. Can we have a round of applause for Mrs. Clap?

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  46. A wonderful story, Karin, probably dashed off without even trying. Give yourself an A.

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  47. Count me in, I like the advice with which you end. My son used all his inate ability by age 16 and now aged 29 is just learning to create some for himself.

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  48. It sounds like Miss Coogan was in the perfect profession. I laughed when you graciously acknowledged that some of the other poets she introduced you to through their books, were also pretty good. *grin*

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  49. Wonderful story AH!!!

    V...I think you're safe...somehow I just can't see you with stockings rolled around your knees...or wagging your middle finger without laughing!!!!

    I remember having to kneel on the ground to make sure our skirts were long enough...the skirt had to touch the ground. I was very tall and still growing like a weed at the time, and I remember kneeling down and my skirt was about 2 inches too short (and it was my favorite dress) I don't remember which teacher it was, but one of the ones checking defended me by saying I was growing so fast that it would be hard for me to consistently have skirts long enough...and besides, it was plenty long enough to cover...!!! I got a reprieve and did not have to go home and change, but I couldn't wear that dress anymore...

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  50. Kathy, that's as close as we've gotten to a nice nun story.

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  51. Actually AH...I was public school the whole way through!!!

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  52. Love this story, Karin. Count me on the list of those who never heard of these folders...
    But students like you??? How did you escape from trouble? You never had your mouth washed out with soap, did you... the rest of us paid for YOU!

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