One teacher hated me; one tortured me

You would never find Mary Beth Vaughn on Facebook today. She would not have a gmail account, or buy anything on ebay. She wouldn’t tweet. She was from the old school.  Mrs. Vaughn would not surf the web. She was prim and proper with a dry sense of humor.  She was among a generation, like my folks, that believed child abuse was not a crime it was a parenting skill.

Mary Beth Vaughn, my stoic 11th grade English teacher, hated me.
She once waited ten minutes after the tardy bell rang to take attendance. She made up some lame excuse about my behavior being “unacceptable” I believe was the word she used, and kicked me out of class. She didn’t send me to the principal’s office or write him a note. She just kicked me out. Then she took attendance and counted me absent. So my wandering around the halls and bathroom and sneaking into the gym for 50 minutes, which I thought was very cool, wasn’t all that cool.

The next day Mr. Carlson came to get me out of home room and took me to his office (never a good sign) and asked me why I cut class third period the day before. I swore to him I didn’t cut class and that Mrs. Vaughn kicked me out.

“She didn’t kick you out,” he assured me. “She counted you absent. Where were you?”

“I went to her class, Mr. Carlson, and I wasn’t absent.”

“Steve, why would Mrs. Vaughn count you absent if you were in her class?”

“I was in her class and she kicked…” was all the farther I got. Talk about a Catch 22. He didn’t believe a pleading word. He wrote a note home to my parents (which always resulted in bloodshed–mine). I spent an hour in detention and the next day Mrs. Vaughn acted as if nothing happened.

I asked her why she did that to me. She looked at me over her wire-rims and with one of those looks only teachers give when they know they gotcha, she said, “Whatever do you mean?” I turned, defeated, back to my seat.
Years after I graduated from high school I discovered that Mrs. Vaughn really didn’t hate me, she was just being a teacher (and I was being a snot-nosed student).

During my teaching years I played a very similar trick on one of my snot-nosed students. As the trick unfolded I thought about Mrs. Vaughn and wondered if my snot-nosed student was anything like I used to be.

Mrs. Vaughn taught me a lot more than tricks I could play on my own students in my English classes. She did a pretty good job of teaching me English. In fact, at this point in my life I can say she probably taught me more about English than just about any other English teacher I ever had, except Genevieve DeLong. All despite my best efforts to sabotage her best efforts.

Mrs. DeLong taught me English in the 7th grade. Her idea of teaching English was to chain us to the blackboards for 50 minutes each day and force us to diagram sentences. The process never differed. Go to the board, write the sentence high on the board, then diagram it underneath. Then, one by one, each of us had to read the sentence and explain how we diagrammed it, what words went where in the diagram and why. If we got it right, we got to diagram another sentence. If we got it wrong, we got to stand there and figure out our mistake(s), then do it right, then explain it again to the class and to Mrs. DeLong.

From September to May, diagramming was our English class. I don’t remember doing anything else in her class ever except diagramming sentences. I hated it. But, it taught me more about sentence structure and eventually sentence writing than anything else I learned. I once diagrammed the preamble to the Constitution, just because I could. I can still diagram sentences today. In fact, I’m probably better at it today than I was then.

Schools don’t teach diagramming in their English classes today. In fact, from what I have seen they don’t teach much of anything in schools these days. For whatever reason, students aren’t learning how to read or write in the same ways we did. But that’s another subject . . . and predicate.

So, boys and girls, if you’re reading this with your mom and dad, and you absolutely hate a subject in school, don’t despair. You may hate it now, but you will reap great benefits from it when you grow up. Take it from a snot-nosed kid who grew up to be a writer and English teacher, two things he hated in school.

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