Sunday, July 29, 2012

She Only Taught Me Three Things

Being a High School English Teacher, I look back at my own High School English Teacher, Mrs. Tanzer, and I must admit: She really only taught me three things:
1. I’m smart and creative.
2. The world is an infinitely interesting place.
3. Life’s about learning and growing and never stopping either one.
I’m smart and creative.   The second youngest of 8, called “Klein” by many instead of Claudia, I was expected by my teachers to be a good student and an even better athlete, a mini-version of my older siblings.
Mrs. Tanzer, however, saw me as an individual, not just as a Klein. She marked my essays with phrases such as “lovely metaphor,” “profound!” “interesting perspective” unlike my previous English teacher whose sole aim was to circle every punctuation error. Reading her comments made me feel interesting, insightful, witty, and I proceeded accordingly.
My family’s expectations molded me into a 3-sport athlete though Mrs. Tanzer saw in me a glimmer of creativity, asking me to do the publicity for her drama productions. Though I wasn’t one dubbed “the artist” in my family, she complimented me on my precise lettering and artful arrangements of shape, color and text for the actor bios. It was the first time I felt the least bit artistic, and I liked the feeling.  Seeing my interest sparked, she encouraged me to participate in Forensics, something that had never been on my radar, but ended up being my favorite high school activity.
Under her direction, I went from being a wiggly-voiced introvert to being a power round orator.
The world’s an infinitely interesting place.   first met her in the guidance office after I’d been kicked out of Sophomore English class for “reading upside down.” My teacher at the time had been reading A Separate Piece aloud at a pace I found excruciatingly slow. To keep my brain active, I followed along, with my book flipped upside down: an act he viewed as insubordination and I viewed as mental survival. When he told me I’d never get an A in his class because of my attitude, I left, and there was Mrs. Tanzer who just happened to be in the guidance office. In hindsight, it seems a fated meeting as within a few short years, English went from upside-down reading to my career of choice.
I’d listen to her in class, mesmerized, as she described the Dionysian rituals of the Greek theatre, as we picked apart “Ozymondias” and Antigone. These weren’t just stories and characters; they were opportunities for us to think about life, to talk about why we’re here, to marvel at the artistry of words.  I’d jot her words and phrases in my notebook margins, wanting to make them my own, wanting to command words and ideas and stories like she did.
Her “tangents” as a few of my more no-nonsense friends called them, to me, were windows to the world: its ideas, its contradictions, its stories. They married my learning to the interesting. “Bibliophile” sticks out in my mind as my favorite Mrs. Tanzer word and tangent and not just because I am one. “There are two types of bibliophiles,” she declared, ”those that write in their books because they love them so much, and those who can’t write in their books because they love them so much. I am the former; my husband’s the latter.” She went on to describe their book habits. I loved knowing this insider info, and forevermore the word, its roots, and that quote would live in my head.
Life’s about learning and growing and never stopping either one.  She taught me to do my best, always. She encouraged us to write and rewrite. And for her, I wanted to turn in nothing but my best. And so, senior year, the last day before Christmas break, I sat in the cafeteria, alone, revising an essay while the rest of the school was at the talent show. She accepted my revision after school, but then lightly scolded me for missing her performance as Cyndi Lauper singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – ironic since that’s precisely what she wanted me to have. She wanted excellence, but she also wanted us to enjoy life.  It’s what we now call teaching the whole child. Her lessons extended far beyond the classroom walls.
When we were Seniors, we went to see her act in a community play. What couldn’t she do? What wasn’t she reading or trying or talking about? I wanted to be this alive.
When I entered college and she became a mentor and a friend, the teaching never stopped. She asked me to coach forensics when I was still an undergraduate. It was during those coaching experiences that I knew I’d become a teacher.
When I dig to the roots of my most worthwhile professional paths, there stands Mrs. Tanzer. When I began teaching AP English, she encouraged me to join the AP listserve, where I became one of a large and generous community of learners. Later, she encouraged me to become an AP reader, describing it as the best professional development out there.
She was right. A few years ago, the phone rang, and she asked me to co-author a book for AP English Teachers with her. Under her tutelage I went from developing a new AP English class at my school to writing the book for it.
She keeps growing; it’s what she does. Just this year, she started taking dance lessons with her husband, and performing competitively. She has never stopped learning, and now, in “retirement,” she’s teaching as much as ever, proposing new curriculums, spearheading several writing projects. She’s more vital than ever.  An unwavering commitment to life and to learning.
That’s really all she taught me.