Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Jane Everest--One of a Kind

I was asked to speak at the funeral of a revered English teacher at my alma mater in Mobile, Al. This is the text of my remarks. 

I graduated from McGill-Toolen in 1980, and Jane Everest taught me as a junior in American Studies English.  Frankly, most of high school is a blur in my memory—a collection of indistinct impressions and sentiments. It says something about the impact that Jane had on my life that I remember her so vividly.

Many of you know that I am now a Catholic high school principal and have been so for 24 years. I’ve interviewed and hired a lot of high school teachers. In terms of the classroom, I look for two qualities:

First—a deep knowledge and dexterity with the subject matter. A teacher can’t fake that, and smart kids, especially, will dismiss a teacher as irrelevant if he or she doesn’t have the tools.

Second—a hard to define “with-it-ness”: a presence, a person who is on the ball, but also a person with a certain quirkiness that can keep kids’ attention. We forget that students spend all day in desks in consecutive classes, and if the teacher doesn’t stand out or sport some eccentricity, students slumber through his or her class.

Jane had both qualities, in abundance.  In terms of the second, she was wonderfully absent-minded, and even used it as her shtick to keep us amused and interested. One afternoon, I remember that she was sitting in front of her desk and talking with us, and started to fiddle with a stapler as she talked. Suddenly she shrieked: “Agghh! I’ve stapled myself!” She came running over to me in the front row. I looked at it. It wasn’t a nick—the staple was deeply embedded in the palm of her hand. “Pull it out,” she said to me, “I can’t watch.” I did so, somewhat horrified.  The reaction of the class went from deep concern (for about 5 seconds) to secret hope that we might get an extra 15 minutes of free time while our teacher sought first aid in the office. Didn’t happen—undeterred, Jane went right on teaching!

In the late 1970’s, we didn’t have cell phones, so there was no such thing as text-messaging, and therefore no problems with texting and driving. But Jane was a fore-runner to that problem. After school one day, I was driving somewhere and she was in the car ahead of me.  She was reading a BOOK while she was driving the car. That’s an enduring image I have of her: she always had a book in her hand. As a student, I figured she was reading a book and was at the good part, and oh, bother, she had to go home, so she just kept right on reading.

She had a peculiar wit. She asked her students to lead the prayer before each class, and being unimaginative and ill-prepared, we often defaulted back to the same prayer: “Lord, please help Friday get here quickly.” After hearing this prayer for the tenth or so time, Jane looked at us and said “I am concerned. You guys are simply praying your life away.” That comment stuck with me, and I smile about it even now.

But Jane was also the real deal in the classroom—tough, uncompromising, with high expectations. Having been one, having raised three, and now principal of about 300 of them, I can say with authority that teenage boys are know-it-alls. Mark Twain once wrote that when he was 16, his parents were the stupidest people in all the world. When he turned 21, he was amazed at how much they had learned in five years. So when my friends and I arrived that first day in Jane’s English class, we had the attitude of “It’s ENGLISH. What could we possibly learn here?”

Jane’s unequivocal answer: PLENTY.  Really, her class was the first class that truly challenged us.  I don’t remember the grade on my first essay—it was less than I was used to—but I do remember very clearly this zinger she wrote at the top of my paper: “Faustin, you write beautifully, but you have nothing to say. “ Appropriately enough, the first two years of high school focused on the “How” of writing—the structure of the essay, the grammar, the organization. But Jane wanted to know the “What.” What’s the argument? Where’s the evidence? Did you make your case? And if we tried to hide the fact we didn’t really understand a piece of literature in our writing, she called us out.  I have spoken to my three sisters and brother, all of whom had Jane, and to my good friend Vincent Ho, who left McGill, went to Harvard and became a doctor, and we all have the same memory: Jane kicked our rears a bit, and because of that earned our respect even as our writing greatly improved.

One of the great blessings of working in Catholic high schools is that I meet some pretty incredible people, people who sacrifice a life of glamour, or fame, or money in order to help kids.  There’s a pernicious saying out there: “People who can, do. People who can’t teach.” I can’t say strongly enough how dead wrong that saying is. Good teachers can juggle ten things at once, they can hold a room full of teenagers rapt with attention for an hour (if you think that’s easy, you’ve haven’t tried it), they often must deal with the unhappy or unruly student, or console or help re-direct the unhappy parent, monitor the parking lot, create tests, grade papers, enter grades, respond to emails—and the best teachers do all of these things with grace and even joy. People with those skills could make a mint in other jobs if they wanted to.

 The family tells me that Jane taught high school for 28 years. By my estimation, then, she taught well over 3,000 of us before she retired.  When we die, what do we want people to say about us? I don’t want people to say I was rich, or famous, or clever, or cool. I want people to say I made a difference in other people’s lives.

Speaking on behalf of the 3,000 students I have the honor of representing this morning, Jane Everest made a difference in our lives. And for that, we are forever indebted, and forever proud to call her our teacher. 

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