How My Heart Was Won by a Woman in a Beige Polyester Skirt

Beth asked, who was the teacher who taught you the most, and what did you learn?

There were two kinds of teachers in high school. (grade 8 -12) It may still be the case.

The Pleasers were the teachers who wanted to be cool. They wanted the kids to like them and relate to them. There was Mr. H, a short, Japanese man who taught French. He would read to us from the Province newspaper and give us candy when we got answers right. He was approachable and jocular. Lots of kids loved him. His feet-on-the-desk lacadaisicality made it all the more jarring when we got to grade 11 French and were taught by a woman who had a different suit and pair of shoes (colour coordinated) for each day of the week and made us refer to her as Madame. Ouch!

Mr. S taught social studies and then Law. He was sleazy and slimy and made off-colour remarks to the girls with big boobs.

Ms. O taught Western Civilization and Psychology and she was a lost counselor type who loved everyone and wanted everyone to succeed. She was a hugger.

I liked all those teachers enough. What was not to like – I was a pretty good student and none of them offended me. Except Mr. S. He offended me. He still does.

Then there were The Hard Asses, who wanted to scare kids into obedience.

Like Mr. B, the Japanese teacher, who was a burly, bald, white guy, kind of like a shorter version of Daddy Warbucks. He had pit bulls at home. He didn’t bring them to school but he talked about them a lot.

The Chemistry, Biology (and probably Physics, though I never found out first hand) and Math teachers were all middle-aged dudes who had always taught Chemistry, Biology and Math. They wore high waisted pants and beige button-down shirts and the occasional tie if it was the beginning of the school year or the day of a sock hop at lunchtime. They didn’t smile. They only spoke Chemistry, Biology and Math.

My favourite teacher was neither of these. Mrs. M was my English teacher for grade 11 and 12. She and her husband both worked at the school; he was a guidance counselor. She was the opposite of a guidance counselor. She was DO THE WORK. She was Settle Down. She was Read This, It Will Change Your Life Why Aren’t You Reading It Yet. She marked hard and showed her frustration with the kids who had lazy spelling. She was not liked by most students because a lot of students have lazy spelling. She also wore a lot of beige and I believe it was in her class that I first became aware of Taupe. She was low-heeled, neutral-coloured, with short hair and glasses. And a frown.

Once, she wore lipstick. People made fun of her for that.

She was my favourite because she didn’t appear to care if anyone liked her. It was a revelation to me – a subconscious one, as I hadn’t thought about it until just now – that anyone in a high school setting could just not care one way or the other what people thought about her.

The Pleasers cared. We could tell. We were embarrassed for them, even as we smiled at them and told them our lesser secrets.

The Hard Asses cared or they wouldn’t try so hard not to let us see them smile.

But Mrs. M, she just came to work, did her work, and went home. It was her job. She loved words and reading and writing. She appreciated kids who loved those things but she didn’t hug them. She told them they should build their careers around words and reading and writing. She gave them something they could use; knowledge, practice, and honesty. If you sucked, she told you. If you were awesome, she told you. It wasn’t about your hair or your shoes, it was just about how you did in English 12.

I guess because I did well in English 12, I appreciated her approach. Or maybe because of her approach, I did well in English 12. Any way you crack it, she still occupies a special, beige place in my heart; for not blowing smoke up anyone’s ass, for being unabashedly uncool and proud of it, and for showing me how it’s done.

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