Monday, March 12, 2012

Memoir Monday: Revving on Rudeness

I typically get along best with polite people, probably because I take great pains myself to be polite. I don't take without asking or presume upon hospitality, and I try to phrase even harsh truths in the gentlest way possible. Rudeness puts me off, and yet I have this strange fascination with people who are blunt, even painfully so.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a biology teacher we'll call Ms. Chadwick. (Name changed to protect the sort-of innocent.) She was a round, bespectacled woman with hard eyes and a no-nonsense manner, which I suppose was an occupational necessity for someone who dealt with 15-year-olds all day. At the time, however, I resented it, probably because I had little interest in biology and even less in the rude woman who taught it.

And she was rude. She moved quickly, covered a lot of material and gave out a lot of work, and you either kept up or you didn't. To all appearances, Ms. Chadwick didn't care which. She was also notably unsympathetic to complaints that her standards were too high or her grading system too demanding. I distinctly recall her once saying, "When you take your car to the mechanic, you pay him for getting your car fixed, and not for trying. It's the same in this class. If you learn the material, you'll get good grades; if you don't, you'll get bad grades. I don't care how hard you try if you fail." Yikes. I did everything I could to avoid her gaze, and contented myself with silently hating her.

I limped through her class at first, maintaining a solid "C" average, but that came crashing down around March, when I just sort of gave up on school. The depression I conquered in my twenties had been with me all through high school, and although I was too young to cope by having sex with strangers, I was just old enough to blow off my studies. Turns out I was equally successful at both, and for my efforts I was rewarded on my next report card with a big fat "F" in Biology and English. My mother, not one to obsess over grades, asked me, "How do you fail English?" She never asked how I managed the same with Biology. Mothers always know.

Depressed I might have been, but I understood immediately that I had exactly three months to turn my grades around or else face (dramatic music) summer school. I hated school like fire, and the notion of spending three extra mind-numbing months there turned me from Depressed Slacker into Super Student. My biology textbook, formerly a nice way to prop open my locker door, became my best friend, and it accompanied me everywhere. I did every single assignment Chadwick handed out and turned them in with a smile, and begged for extra credit. Chadwick, never averse to working students like dogs, obliged by assigning various essays about mitosis and meiosis and other cell thingies in which I had formerly had no interest. In class I went from staring out the window to jumping to answer any question, counting on that good-ol' class participation credit. I was surprised to find I knew most of the answers. When we did our weekly, graded team drills, I found myself in high demand, which was new for me given I spent most of my high school experience practicing invisibility. I won that week for my team, and on the way out of class Chadwick said to me, "You've really turned things around this semester. Keep it up." That's not exactly gushing, but I was absurdly flattered nonetheless.

In May, we had to write a semester-ending essay in response to the question, "What is Science?" This was big-time for the sophomore set, and the competition was intense. All my hard work aside, I sensed I was the dark horse in this race, a feeling confirmed when I saw the mounds of research my classmates were conducting. There was no "Project Runway" back then, but if there had been, that was the moment Tim Gunn would have appeared to tell me that no matter what happened, I should be proud of what I had accomplished. So I decided to go all MTV unplugged – another TV show that had not yet materialized – and my essay answered the question of what science was with one word: why. I maintained that science began with one guy or gal, somewhere back in the deeps of time, asking why water never ran uphill or thunder happened. It was a gutsy call, but I believed it then and, looking back, I still do. So I turned in a two-page paper amongst the dissertations my classmates produced and then went back to my extra credit.

And do you know I won that sucker? Chadwick had a gimlet eye and an unsentimental heart, but she gave me full credit for it in front of the entire class. They were impressed and amazed - I was pretty good at being invisible - and it was the first time I ever felt like I'd accomplished something real in school. Sure, it was only a high-school class, but when you're 15, that's enough. At the year's end I got a nice fat "A" in Biology. I ended up with only a "C" in English, but my mother evidently decided two miracles were too much to expect and left me alone about it.

Years later – many years – whenever I encounter these utterly blunt, unsentimental people, I think of Chadwick and her who-cares-if-you-try philosophy. I can't say it was the best tack to take with children, but it spurred me to succeed and earned my grudging respect. I think that people often rise to the demands placed before them, and sometimes the best you do to help is to insist upon their best. That's not always polite, but it gets the job done.


Anonymous Anthony said...

Insightful. Thank you.

10:41 AM  

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