The Best Teachers Were Also The Toughest

Growing up, I was blessed with teachers who cared not only with my learning the three “R’s” but also about developing me as a whole person. Three of them stand out in my memory.

Ms. Sexton was short, gray-haired and possessed a blue-eyed stare that could stop an eight-year-old boy in his tracks.  It has been 55 years since I sat in her third grade class; still I remember how her no nonsense demeanor was combined with a gentle smile and a twinkle in her eye.

Central Elementary School

In those days, it was unusual to have a new classmate, especially a displaced Yankee boy: a rarity that made him a target for the rest of us.  At recess, we picked on him until he scampered to the classroom with tears streaming down his cheeks.  Boasting of how we had vanquished the young northerner, we followed him inside where we were greeted by an angry teacher.

Ms Sexton marched us outside, placed us where she could look each of us in the eye and asked, “How would you feel if you were new, had no friends and everyone picked on you?”  As we guiltily lowered our eyes, she sternly exclaimed, “Didn’t you learn the Golden Rule in Sunday school?  In my class, and I hope anywhere else, you don’t tease people because of how they look, what they wear or where they came from.  Understand!?  This afternoon you will stay after school and clean the erasers and tomorrow you will make a new friend.”  Over five decades later, words I still recall.

Two years later, my teacher was a remarkable lady, with a pitching arm that could have gotten her a tryout with the Boston Red Sox.  The first day of class, standing in front of the room, Ms Barge instructed a student in the rear row of desks to hold up a ruler. When he did so, she grabbed a blackboard eraser and hurled it 20 feet, cleanly knocking the measuring stick out of his hand.  We got the message: if she could knock a ruler out of someone’s hand from across the room, hitting one of us up the side of the head was no big deal.

Our classroom was on the second floor of Eighth Street Elementary.  The room had large windows—which remained open on warm days—with potted plants resting on the windowsills.  One afternoon, as she was explaining a math problem, Ms Barge’s lesson was interrupted by boys laughing and shouting below the windows.  In the middle of a sentence, she stopped talking, marched to the window, leaned out and told them to be quiet and return to their class.

Satisfied that they would obey, she had taken two steps when again loud voices arose.  She returned to the window and said, “I’m not going to tell you again, return to your class.”  She started to the front of the class when laughter once more arose from the courtyard.  This time, with both hands she lifted a flower pot, dropped it out of the window and, as it crashed to the ground, shouted, “Next time I won’t miss. Now go to your room.”

Forty years later, during our high school reunion, my classmates were still talking about the day Ms Barge dropped the flowerpot.

Never a student of math, I knew I was in trouble when I was assigned to Ms Cromartie’s algebra class.  An exacting teacher, Ms Cromartie didn’t put up with nonsense and didn’t tolerate excuses.  She expected you to be prepared. When you were, she would work with you; however, when you weren’t, she ignored your questions.  Students who were adept at math loved her, while those, like me, who struggled with the subject, were terrified of her.  On the last day of class, as I walked out of her room, I was relieved that, “I was through with Ms Cromartie.”

Forty years later, as I walked into her room in the nursing home, my mother greeted me by saying, “I have a new roommate, who is so sweet, we are becoming close friends and I think you might know her.”  Then, looking to the bed next to her, she said, “Virginia, wake up, I want you to meet my son Bill.”  The slightly built roommate turned, smiled and said, “I know Billy. I taught him math in high school.”  Ms Cromartie was my mother’s roommate!

It’s ironic: the teachers I remember—the ones I learned the most from—were also the most demanding and the toughest disciplinarians.  They were passionate about teaching and that didn’t require being friends with their students.  Along with the traditional subjects, they delivered lessons to live by: to care for your neighbors, that actions have consequences and to take responsibility.  They were tough, consistent and fair; they set and expected their students to meet high standards.  How they handled their students is a lesson for parents, teachers, supervisors, politicians: all types of leaders.

The Dream

The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.” – Dan Rather


4 responses to “The Best Teachers Were Also The Toughest

  1. Agreed. The teachers I remember most from school are the stern ones. I guess it shows that they are really passionate in teaching their students properly. But there are a few who are really kind, patient and extremely helpful whom are also suck in my mind until today.

    • I too had some wonderful, kind and with me, extremely patient teachers; they too made a difference in my life. It’s the tough ones with strong personalities who I will always remember most.

  2. Good post Bill. I had strict teachers also, but then I went to parochial school where I was taught mostly by nuns. They were no nonsense women.
    It just so happens I’m in Charleston, W.VA. right now working at a teachers conference. I’m hearing such sad stories from these dedicated teachers who are struggling so to make ends meet. It’s a sad state to see what’s happened to our educational system in this country. I do believe we are in the process of being dumbed down.

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