In all my years as a student - from pre-K all the way through grad school - Becky Brown was the best teacher I ever had. Even in the early morning haze of senior year back in 1985, I remember what a treat it was to be a part of Mrs. Brown’s literature class - sitting in a giant circle, facing each other! - reading, discussing, and always laughing. But Mrs. Brown’s class wasn’t just fun, it was as deep and rich as the world, and Mrs. Brown’s wise insights into the wide world of literature and our own little lives helped us become better readers, writers, thinkers, and most importantly, better people.
Still, as a seventeen year-old there was always something that puzzled me about Mrs. Brown: why would someone so smart - who knew everything about literature - be so curious and interested in what we thought? It didn’t make sense at the time, but I loved every minute of it, and looking back now, I realize that what made her class so majestic was that she loved literature, she loved students, and she wasn’t scared to show it. In my twenty-two years in my own classroom, Mrs. Brown’s teaching has been a model I’ve aspired to follow every day.
A couple of years ago I was trying to find the perfect person to help chaperone a trip leading 25 students to Haiti. This person would have to love high school students enough to be around them for 7 days straight, be able to comfort students when they felt homesick, and most importantly, would chaperone me. Of course, Becky did all this and more, and I’ll always never forget our group’s evening meetings under Haitian mango trees: analyzing the day’s experiences, working through our culture shock, listening to her read a poem about the joy of new experiences, talking about our favorite moment of the day. It was just like being back in her class all those years before, and it was the highlight of my teaching career. So thank you, Mrs. Brown for being an amazing teacher, thirty years ago and today.
First Year Teacher: 1966
Top Song that year: “Penny Lane”
President that year: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Hometown: Indian Trail, NC
School: Wake Forest College, BA; New York University, MA
Subjects: English, history, (and a couple years of math!)
Subject you can't imagine teaching: ballet
Favorite Beatle: John Lennon
Favorite Subject/Book to teach: Poetry
The television show about your teaching life would be entitled: “One Student at a Time” starring Maggie Smith.
School would be so much better if: teachers ran them.
Tell me a story about something funny that happened in your class. Funny. Funny has a lot of definitions. It was funny (stupid funny) that I even tried to teach Alice in Wonderland when I knew so little about it. While I learned a lot, I’m not sure my students did. It was funny (well duh kind of funny), when I noticed that my tenth graders and I were not laughing at the same time: they thought I was hilarious when I was being serious, and I thought they were funny when they were (dramatically) not. It was funny the day that we had a tornado drill when I had stepped out of the classroom to take roll in another teacher’s room. My students thought it was a fire drill and went outside and across the road. It took me a long time to find them. Funny things happened often—the delightful kind of funny produced from that wonderful mixture of literature and bright students. But one event? No. I can’t answer that one. It was, for me, nearly all fun-ny.
Why did you become a teacher? I loved both students and the literature and wanted to introduce them to each other.
What was your most memorable experience from your first year of teaching? A snapshot I remember is of me standing on a ladder leaning against a gym wall and hanging decorations for the prom. I was five months pregnant. I was an idiot.
Think about the best student you've ever taught. What made them the best? Sparkling intelligence, sense of humor, empathy with peers
What was the one thing that you probably said the most times in your classroom? Substantiate your argument.
If you hadn’t been a teacher what would you probably have done? I might have been a writer.
Describe the moment when you realized you were going to be a teacher. I had a bad teacher (talked mainly about Jamie, her son, and her cat) in the seventh grade. I started spending my time in her classroom thinking about how I would teach whatever she was teaching if I had the chance. That year was a long “moment,” but I think it all started then.
What's the most surprising thing that's ever happened in your classroom? There were lots or surprising things that happened. Perhaps the most startling happened during the years I taught in a really rough school (army base nearby) in New Jersey. I had a class of mostly seventeen and eighteen year old freshmen—kids who hated school, life, and themselves. One day, I noticed one boy, Larry, had tears running down his cheeks. The student opposite him had his legs in the aisle when he managed to let me know that Oscar (who sat behind Larry) was pinching Larry. Oscar, realizing he’d been “ratted out,” pulled out his compass (the kind we make circles with—pointy foot and all) and started stabbing the “rat’s” legs. I had, over the years, one student have a stroke in class, a student have a diabetic seizure, fights, students both high and low on drugs (tiny little pupils), anorexics, and bulimics. All were surprising and unexpected. But I had, miraculously, only that one stabbing.
What would you want a student to remember about you & your class in 20 years? That I was kind.
What would be good advice for a student about to take your class? Talk to me. Tell me when I am not unclear. Tell me when I am being insensitive. Slow me down. Speed me up. Don’t let me get away with anything sloppy or careless.
What is one quality you always wish you’d had more of as a teacher? Wisdom
What's something a teacher should NEVER do? A teacher should never forget that everyone and everything matters.
What’s something to ALWAYS do? Be prepared. You owe it to your material and to your students
What's the worst excuse a student ever gave you? Written: I have dire rear.
As a teacher, which of the five senses is the most important? It’s a package. All are needed. And more.
What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done? Maybe this: After taking a firm stand for integration in the rural county I taught in and finding, “N--- Lover,” written on my blackboard every morning when I got to school, I would get a bucket and wash the board. One morning I didn’t erase it. It stayed there for several days before, finally, my board was clean when I walked in, and it never reappeared. My students coalesced into a support group for me and made me stronger for future challenges. I hope they also felt empowered.
What should every young/beginning teacher know? That s/he is forming lifelong relationships. Long after students forget what chiasmus means, they will remember how they felt in your classroom.
What’s something a teacher should never wear to teach class? Tight shoes
If you could change one thing about schools what would it be? I would lower class loads. Why, in any sane universe, would one professional be paid $150 for every zit lanced and another professional be expected to work on the brains of 30 students at a time for less than a dollar per student per hour?
What's something most people don't know about teaching? How utterly daily and confining it is.
What's the most significant way students have and haven’t changed over the years? Students are the same with the same basic needs. Hamlet who was himself an adolescent (regardless of his chronological age) was the same as my students all those years I taught: unsure, betrayed by his parents, his girl, and his friends, and trying so hard to please them all! Some things never change. Dealing with it never got harder or easier.
Who's the best teacher you ever had and what was so great about them? I’ve learned from both bad teachers and good teachers. Bad teachers made me learn the material without their help, were careless with people, and didn’t care about their profession. I learned from them. The best teachers made me love their subject and challenged me to my limits, having faith in my intelligence to find my own way through some pretty dense material. Looking back and thinking about all those teachers, I feel gratitude for all of them. I’m more forgiving as I have aged. I think we all do/did the best we can. It’s never enough.
This interview was conducted in person and by email.