The teachers who were enthusiastic about what they were teaching – regardless of the subject – made me love the subject and love school. They made me think that maybe there was a good reason they were so darned excited about it.
I guess the first one like this was Mrs. Staup in 5th grade in New Meadows, ID, who loved drama so much we did about 5 plays that year – just among our classmembers (in that small town, the entire 5th grade was only 20 students).
Then my 7th grade life science teacher at Stidwell Jr. High in Sandpoint, ID. I can’t recall his name, but he was PSYCHED about science. Man, everything was cool to him. We memorized every bone in the body, we drew sketches of little single-celled organisms we saw in the microscope, we dissected worms and grasshoppers and frogs, and learned how to tell the male parts from the female parts in flowers. I loved that class mostly because he loved it.
At Stidwell in 8th grade, my English teacher opened my world to creative writing, which was a passport to much of my happiness ever since. I was encouraged to get it all out onto paper, and told that it was all good. I’ve been a writing fiend ever since. I wish I could remember her name. Two other teachers that year were significant to me: my history teacher who made us study our textbooks, but never looked at the book himself because he had it memorized. He would lecture non-stop, and told us the most incredible stories about the beginnings of our country. He would say, “Your book doesn’t get into this, but you might be interested to know…” He bullied us until we read mind-bending books like Fail-Safe, Centennial, All Quiet on the Western Front, and On the Beach. And finally, Mr. Spangler, whom we called Spanglebrain because he was a bit odd. But an incredible artist, and the first and only one to teach me about perspective and shadowing and colours…until I took my next art class twenty years later.
There was another science teacher who was totally psyched about science when I got to high school, back in New Meadows. Same small school: Kindergarten through 12th grade all in the same building! So Hoby (his actual name was Dan Richards) taught science to 7th through 12th. We created bug collections (I know, I know, only certain kinds can actually be called “bugs”). Aside from true bugs, we collected butterflies, moths, caterpillars, insects, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, etcetera, etcetera. We had a minimum of 150 things to pin down to get a passing grade. We all went to each other’s houses. Lori’s garden was where to get the millipedes, Krystie’s back porch was a hot spot for moths. The next year he had us tramping through the valley and the mountains to spot birds. This time, we had to identify 50 different birds to get a passing grade. He burned magnesium right in front of us, taught us how to build flourescent lights, and we all memorized the steps for myosis and mitosis.
The best thing about science with Hoby was the field trips though. If your grade in Spring was a C or better, you could go on the field trip during Spring Break. We hiked the Grand Canyon, explored Joshua Tree National Forest, traveled the trails of Zion National Park (went up the sharp edge of Angel’s Landing – Yipes!), and got our boots caked with orange, red, and turquoise mud from Bryce Canyon Natl park, stayed days in Yellowstone Park and saw a hundred geysers or more, hiked through Red Rock Canyon out of Las Vegas, as well as toured above and inside Hoover Dam, on Lake Mead.
At the same school was Marc Long, the math/computer teacher. Get this folks, in 1986, Mr. Long had us programming in Pascal. We created our own video game for a final assignment on a bunch of brand new Apple IIe’s that had been donated to our poor country school. I feel so fortunate to have had years and years of computer experience. I LOVED programming! It was one of my favourite classes. It makes me so disappointed that no one ever said to us that we could make a career out of what we were doing. I just thought it was a fun toy. I didn’t realize that computer programming skills in 1986 – or 1988 when I graduated – would be incredibly marketable. Maybe no one realized it at the time. I could have had so much fun programming for a decade or so when I got out of high school. It would have been a blast. Oh well.
Marc also loved math. He thought it was exciting and fun. I grew to love math too. I wasn’t always that good at it, but I loved it anyway. So nice and dependable: one right answer, and one way of getting to it. Ahhh… black and white. So comforting. Geometry was the best, and has provided me with a perspective with which to approach the rest of my life. All those damn proofs. This angle must be 70 degrees because that angle is a right angle and those lines are perpendicular, which means we can use the Pythagorean theorem to get that angle, which is 45 degrees, which makes this adjacent parallelogram…. If a person sat and thought about it hard enough, an answer could be worked out through reason, intellect, logic. I’ve used that method in day to day life ever since. Just sit and think. Locked myself out of the house? Need to get two people to work with only one car? Want to buy a house but don’t have a job? Want to go to school full time on the other side of the country all by myself in a city I’ve never seen at a school that costs $40K a year to attend? Just sit and think it out.
Actually, most of my high school teachers were amazing. Mr. Dahl was the PE coach for 1st through 12th graders, plus the JV and Varsity football coach. He loved me. I don’t know why. I needed shoes because I was on the basketball team, but couldn’t afford shoes. He had a pair of brand new ones that another student had purchased that didn’t fit. He said I could earn them. So I went out to his property on weekends for awhile, chopping wood and helping him with different tasks as he built his new house, and sometimes babysat his children, Ingen and Olin. I used those shoes for the rest of the time I was in school. He also made me the videographer of the Varsity football and basketball teams, and I traveled with them to all the games. I had to ride the team bus and sit near the coach so I could learn what was important to them, so I would know what to shoot. It was great experience. Again, I could’ve taken that experience and training on to a career that would have been a blast, but it just never occurred to me that people film football games for paying wages.
Heidi Miller, from Germany, taught us not only the language but so much of the culture of West Germany (there were two Germanys back then…). She was also our History, Government, and American Studies teacher, and an excellent person to teach us about the Cold War, politics, war, and great heroes of our country’s past. We were all assembled with her in the library with the TV set up one morning to watch the Space Shuttle Columbia launching live. She then canceled class and spent the rest of the morning helping us to talk out our shock at watching seven astronauts explode in front of our eyes.
Morris Krigbaum was one adult who first treated us as adults also. He had high expectations, made us read the classics, and coached me as the youngest editor of the school newspaper in recent history. He brought in a credit union representative from Boise to get us all signed up with bank accounts if we wanted one. When my family moved out of town in the middle of my senior year, Morris gifted me $150 a month (which I in turn spent on the family that took me in) so I didn’t have to leave.
Well, anyway, for the two schools in Idaho where I got most of my early education, I feel like I got the best education available. I don’t really think I could isolate one teacher who made a difference: they were all so incredible.