June means graduations, which reminds me that it was 30 years ago (!) that I graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD. Roosevelt is a magnet school, and when I attended (1980-1984), it was blessed to have many, many excellent teachers, some of whom I had the pleasure of learning under.
In elementary and middle schools, my budding writing talent and love of reading had been nurtured, and that continued at ERHS. My English teachers were Jean Farrell (9th grade), Jane Burke (10th), Linda Brylawski (11th), and Joy Pohl (AP English in 12th grade). I exasperated poor Mrs. Farrell, but she was very patient. Mrs. Burke was like a surrogate mom to me (I’m still friends with her daughter and son), and was cool enough to let me a do a book report on Stephen King’s Firestarter (I was a big King fan back then, not at all anymore).
I must apologize, many years later, to poor Ms. Brylawski. Remember Bender (“the criminal”) from The Breakfast Club? Well, that was me in my last two years of high school, minus the smoking and drug use: sarcastic and smart-mouthed, anti-authority (anti-almost everything, really), impatient, and quick to anger.
I’d stomp into her honors class in my boots and torn jeans and heavy-metal concert t-shirts, plunk myself down (in the back, of course) amidst my nice, well-dressed, high-achieving, NHS classmates, and start a literary argument just to watch the class period burn. At the end of the year, when I asked her to sign a recommendation form so that I could take AP English the next year, she sighed audibly and asked, “Will you PLEASE promise to behave?” I said I’d give it a try. She signed.
Ms. Pohl set the bar on how I would be expected to perform in college. The first day of class, she walked in and said, “As I assume you have already done the summer reading” (no, I actually hadn’t), “we’ll have a quiz on the first three chapters of The Mayor of Casterbridge tomorrow.” Guess what I spent that evening reading? I never had an English course in college that was as tough as her AP class.
The very classy Madame Grazina Blekaitis guided me through French. Hans Schneider attempted for three years to teach me German: I can get by when I go back to the ancestral homeland, but most of the time, I can’t remember what article (“der,” “die,” or “das”) to use. (Side note: one time when I attempted German in front of my immigrant mother, she told me, “Your accent is terrible.” To which I replied, “Of course my accent is terrible: I’M AN AMERICAN.”)
I was gung-ho for Ronald Reagan when he ran against Jimmy Carter, much to the considerable dismay of my civics teacher, Scott Powell, but he admitted that two other boys and I mopped the floor with our opponents during our in-class mock-presidential debate. A few years later, Joan Magin taught me so well in AP U.S. History that I got a “5” out of 5 on the AP exam that spring.
Muriel Altenburg kindly, patiently taught innumerate me algebra, and I enjoyed her class so much that I would work out quadratic formulas just for fun. If I could have had her for math every year, I would have progressed much farther past the Math 110 that I took (twice) in college.
William Manion’s journalism class honed my writing talent, teaching me how to craft articles that would appeal to a broad audience, and allowing me to have said articles published in the school newspaper. It was my first time that thousands of people (Roosevelt was and is a big school) read what I wrote.
Manion’s lessons helped with me with future writing endeavors, as well as imparted to me an understanding of how the news media is supposed to work (and, alas, has failed to for at least the last 15 years or so) as an objective watchdog on the government. Mr. Manion himself was liberal (his favorite columnist was Richard Cohen), but he was fair and professional.
My favorite teacher, however, was Ms. Linda Squier, whom, I understand, retired from Roosevelt recently after teaching Latin there for decades. I took two years with her, and if you put me in charge of education in this country, I would make at least two years of Latin mandatory for every high school student. You cannot fully understand the English language—or fully appreciate the Romance languages—without studying Latin.
More than that, however, Ms. Squier had a joie de vivre that made me want to show up every day even though my high school years were not very pleasant. She was exuberant, seemingly lived to teach, and loved to see the lights go on in her students’ heads.
One of the highlights of my senior year was the Saturnalia she held (“It is NOT an orgy,” she explained, which some of us were dismayed to learn) in the cafeteria for all her Latin students: Roman garb (mandatory togas), Roman foods, Roman entertainment (no gladiators, but nonetheless, we WERE entertained).
Ms. Squier once said that if she could not be a teacher, she would bump off Grace Slick (whom she resembled) and sing for Jefferson Starship. Had she done so, I am confident that she would have spared the world the horror that is “We Built This City.”
And now this is playing in your head on an endless loop. You’re welcome.
Ms. Squier was the best, even if she exploited my (then) hatred of The Beatles by bursting into their songs every so often in class. She taught me a great number of things, and instilled a love of languages in me. Ave, magistra!
Kenton Kilgore is the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Look for his next work, LOST DOGS, a young adult sci-fi novel, coming this summer.