Boomers Had Amazing Teachers

Did you have an influential teacher in your life? One who went out of the way to help, offer a memorable life lesson, or deliver the kind of encouragement you needed at the right time? Most boomers answer to the affirmative.

For Mister Boomer, she was one of his seventh grade teachers, Miss Downey. She taught English, and her class was not Mr. B’s home room. While of a short, fireplug stature, she commanded attention and respect by being both a strict disciplinarian in the classroom, wielding an aluminum yardstick with all the finesse of the Marquis De Sade, but was never above having a good laugh, or talking about comic books or pop culture, either. Yet when a student would show a comic or cartoon in class, she was also quick to recommend James Thurber cartoons and stories.

She was unusual in her fashion sense in that she almost exclusively wore black dresses with flounced sleeves and touches of white lace, flat shoes and hair shorter than most women in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood. In that regard she very much fit into the Mod look coming out of London’s Carnaby Street around the same time, but muted as if viewed on a black and white television.

Though her presence was memorable in itself, like many of Mister Boomer’s teachers — it was the 1960s after all — what made her top-of-mind to this day was the vocabulary she taught the class. Each week, she would add a selection of words to the list. Her intent was more than providing a spelling challenge, as she discussed the meanings of the words for young minds to digest. Mister B and his classmates would dutifully take notes, knowing that they would be quizzed on these very words a week or two later. While there was nothing unusual about a seventh grade teacher providing a vocabulary list to her students, the words themselves are what echo through the canyons of Mister Boomer’s aging mind. Miss Downey had evidently decided it was time to inject real, multi-syllable words into her classroom of impressionable minds; words with the heft of literature behind them, words that would speak years later, when reading a paragraph and that flashlight bulb of recognition blinked for students a distant memory away.

Here is a sampling of words presented to Mister Boomer’s seventh grade class by Miss Downey, that Mister B has to admit, fifty-plus years later, find their way into his speaking and writing at an opportune regularity that seems beyond coincidence — which was one of her words:

gossamer
sophisticated
juggernaut
quintessence
quiddity
centrifugal
verisimilitude
coup d’etat
modus operandi
coincidence

Following her lead, Mister B found a genuine appreciation for James Thurber cartoons in the New Yorker magazine, and began his lifelong interest in science fiction, beginning with reading the novels of Jules Verne in her class. Mister Boomer sends a heartfelt “thank you” to Miss Downey, and all who teach. The juggernaut of time cannot erase the quintessence of her verisimilitude.

Did you have an influential teacher in your life, boomers?

Time for a Boomer Education Comeback?

Mister Boomer recently heard an interview with an author who wrote about the differences between the Chinese education system and that of the U.S. in an effort to discover why our country continually lags behind in elementary education surveys.

The author said that in China, children must obey their parents as the ultimate authority figures, and when they went to school, the teachers were the ultimate authority. Not even parents are allowed to question teachers’ methods or course study. While this cultural imperative imparts a strict discipline that is evidently conducive to prepping students for higher education, it sounds far more rigid that anything we have had in this country … or does it? Mister Boomer was struck by the similarities to our Boomer-era education.

Granted, things may never have been as disciplined as required in a Chinese classroom, but the way we rose through the school ranks is far different than what transpires today. First off, we were also taught to respect and listen to our parents, which, for the most part, we did. When we went to school, the teachers were thought of as an extension of the parents. That meant what the teacher said, went. If you came home and said, “The teacher hit me,” a parent might have responded with, “Good, what did you do to make her hit you?” Our parents would take the side of the teacher every time.

Yes, there was that corporal punishment aspect of classroom discipline that causes litigation today. Mister Boomer stayed along the straight and narrow, but he saw classroom beat-downs that would horrify today’s supermarket tabloids. It is doubtful that many people would want to return to that aspect of “education,” but it is a part of our shared history. Despite the threat of bodily harm, kids accepted teachers as authority figures.

This system sometimes broke down when there was a substitute teacher. Kids enjoyed giving her (teachers were mostly female) a hard time on occasion, though it was usually light-hearted mischievousness. Take, for example, one day Mister Boomer remembers: He was probably in fourth grade when the school principal came into his class and introduced a woman who was to be the sub for a few days. Immediately after the principal left, the substitute passed around a pad of paper and asked the kids to write their names so she could take attendance and get to associate the names with faces.

Almost immediately, muffled snickering could be heard as the list passed down one row and up the next. When it reached Mister B, he could see what the snickering was about. Enterprising youth as they were, most wrote their own names, but also added another fictitious one to the list. Naturally, at the top of the list a pre-teen boy had written above his own name,“Jack MeHoff.” Almost every student had joined in the fun, adding “Chuck Wagon,” “Luke Warm,” “Willie Makit,” and, in a rare bit of solidarity, a girl penned “Helen Bach” after her name. Mister B, feeling the peer pressure, added “Pete Moss.”

The payoff would come when the teacher called each name. Was she in on the joke or just clueless? Sure enough, she started at the top of the list, much to the delight of the class: “Jack … Mee-Huff, is that how you pronounce it? … Jack, where are you,” she continued as the class burst into laughter. She caught on pretty quickly after that and navigated the name land mines to conduct a regular class. There were no further incidents for the duration of her substitute days.

Is it time to return to a level of classroom respect that we experienced as boomers? Who can say, especially since so much has changed. Kids today are far more advanced in their course studies than we were, not to mention the influence of technology. Yet the U.S. lags down the list for education quality on the world stage.

What do you think, boomers? Are there aspects of our own Age of Innocence that can be applied today, or has that ship sailed into the annals of history?