By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
There have been many collective revelations over the past several weeks, but a new appreciation for teachers certainly ranks near the top. Parents who have been required to work from home, with all the technological hiccups that engenders, have also been expected to home school their children. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that wine sales have soared in the past two months. If I were the head of the teacher’s union I’d be forming a strategy for pay raises. In fact, low pay was one of the primary reasons I decided not to become a teacher. That, and I have little patience, which seems to be a requirement for working with six year old children. Twenty years ago I was president of a non-profit organization that paired business people with local elementary schools. We spent an hour a week reading to an underperforming child. I loved it and an hour a week was enough to scratch my teacher itch. But once a year we “played” at being the principal for a day. I shadowed the principal, dealt with teacher/student issues, heard about heart-breaking home situations from CPS and tried to reconcile the annual budget. I couldn’t even make it a full day. After four hours I fled back to my comfortable office. I am not proud of that, but it forever cemented for me that I had made the right career decision.
I had some good and bad teachers over the years. I suspect that’s true for everyone. Like any other profession, there is a wide range of talent and effectiveness among educators. I was lucky enough to have three teachers whose examples, guidance and talent have stuck with me all my life. Of the three, the very best was my high school English teacher, Bette Reese. Until I landed in her class I was a middling student, with low self-confidence and grades to match. I was more focused on boys and socializing than schoolwork. Ms. Reese was a task master, constantly correcting grammar, spelling and composition. She introduced me to Hemingway, Camus and Dostoevsky – pretty heady stuff for a high school junior. I so wanted to please her that I found myself working harder and – miracle of miracles – I became an “A” student. Ms. Reese and I formed a friendship – I introduced her to Rod McKuen, the poet laureate of 60’s pop culture, and she took me under her wing, helping me to better appreciate good writing and the importance of using correct grammar. I was lucky enough to be in her Advanced English class my Senior year, where my education was further honed by her unrelenting, steely resolve to make something of me.
I’ve been thinking of Ms. Reese during this lock-down as I have spent more time watching the news and reading social media. I’ve been appalled by the number of people unable to write a cogent sentence. In general, I am a bit of a stickler for grammar (although regular readers of this blog can attest that I make quite a few errors), but I’ve been brought to the brink of insanity the past two months. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – they are all swamplands of bad grammar. The most common mistake I see is people confusing “your” with “you’re”. Clearly they were behind the schoolhouse door the day that contractions were discussed. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has posted “Your the best” or “Your going to love this!”. Ugh. There is no escaping the your/you’re error. We received an invitation to a tony club opening in Northern California where the front of the card screamed, “YOUR INVITED”. How many managers had to review that advertisement before it went to the printer? I decided if they weren’t smart enough to know the English language I wasn’t dumb enough to give them my money. TV news readers make so many grammatical errors that I can’t decide whether they skipped journalism school altogether or their scripts are written by a third grade dropout. Whatever the excuse, it’s clear they never learned the difference between “well” and “good”. The reports on the COVID pandemic have generated a common question asked of or by reporters: “How are you doing?”. About 1,000 times in the past two months the answer has been, “I’m doing good.”. OMG – NO! “Good” is used only as an adjective, as in, she makes a good Christmas cookie. “Well” is an adjective or adverb, as in, I don’t feel well after eating her damned Christmas cookie.
I wish everyone had been fortunate enough to have had a Ms. Reese in their lives. There is nothing better than a teacher who instills an appreciation for a subject that gets buried deep in your soul. Ms. Reese left my high school two years after I graduated and became an English and Journalism professor at College of Marin. She eventually became the faculty advisor to the student newspaper where no doubt she used her magic on many aspiring journalists. Sadly, Bette Reese died in 1979 at the age of 44 from pancreatic cancer. To this day the college awards the Bette Reese Memorial Scholarship to a talented journalism student. I can only hope they are maintaining her high standards, but I’m not optimistic. If Ms. Reese were still alive she could make a fortune correcting the grammar of most journalists. But I guess the point of a good teacher is that we carry on for them, sharing the knowledge they so generously shared with us. So in the name of Bette Reese I’m going to continue to scream at the infractions on the news channels and social media. Somewhere, somehow, I just know Ms. Reese is cheering me on.