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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 6, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 1
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Thank You, Miss Hoffmann

When I tell people that I was born and raised in California, I sometimes can see them mentally conjuring up images of Baywatch or Beverly Hills, 90210. Actually, the movie American Graffiti is much more in sync with my childhood surrounds. Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley — the hot, dry farm belt of California — I could relate more easily to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath than to the lush vineyards of Napa Valley or the orange groves of Pasadena.

Steinbeck notwithstanding, English and writing were never favorite subjects of mine in school. Not that I wanted it to be that way; it's just that the quality of my English teachers was generally mediocre. On the other hand, I had some fabulous science and math teachers, starting in the seventh grade, who provided the best possible grounding for my college studies and beyond. I rarely read books outside of class, and, if I did, they were more likely to be concerned with science or math than history or fiction, a reflection of my classroom experiences.

It's hard to imagine English teachers not being able to compete with their science and math peers. Perhaps it wasn't that the English teachers were so bad but that the math teachers were so good. Whatever the cause, the discrepancy fueled my frustration. I remember one time meeting with the high school principal to see if I could transfer to another English teacher because I felt I wasn't learning anything new.

All that changed my senior year in high school — and how! On the first day of class, as I perused my schedule, I started to get a pain in my stomach when I came across the third-period entry, "11 a.m.: Senior English, Agnes Hoffman, Room 214C." Although we had never met, just seeing Agnes Hoffman's name on my class schedule was sufficient to increase my gastric secretions 10-fold — such was her legendary reputation. Miss Hoffman (as we then called unmarried women teachers in the days before Gloria Steinem and women's lib) was the kind of teacher who gave students ulcers, though, as far as I know, she never suffered this malady herself.

Standing all of five-foot-three, slightly portly, mid-40s, with a ruddy complexion, penetrating eyes and an irascible personality, Miss Hoffman was a formidable figure. We nonetheless started out the school year with a reasonably good relationship — until the first midterm. The class was assigned to read a story in the Atlantic Monthly by John Cheever. As I recall, on first (and second and third) glance, the story was nearly incomprehensible. But not to worry: From past experience, I knew that reading comprehension questions on an English midterm were akin to Sports Marketing final exam questions at the University of Georgia: "How many halves in a college basketball game?" Or the old Groucho Marx query, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

Unfortunately, after the first question on the midterm, the truth hit home. I was in serious trouble and couldn't fake my way to success. Not only did I not understand the article, I didn't even understand the questions. Still, I thought that my good academic reputation and what I hoped was a charming personality would at least get me a C.

Lesson learned. You can only fake your way so far. The next day, a large red F was inscribed across the top of my exam, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Even worse, scribbled at the bottom was a note from Miss Hoffman: "Please see me after class!" She found me out. I was an empty suit, a math savant devoid of any literary ability.

I can't say the tongue-lashing I received from Miss Hoffman after class was undeserved, but that didn't make it any easier to take. The message was clear: "Brody, you're going to have to hustle just to pass this class, and even that is a stretch." However, she wasn't as heartless as I feared. She gave me a reprieve. She would assign another article and make up another midterm so that I could save myself from total disaster.

As you would expect, the next article was even more obscure and complex, but I spent all the waking hours of the weekend studying and straining my cerebrum to wade through it. And then, voila!, suddenly, at 11 p.m. on Sunday, it came together. Monday morning I took the makeup exam and passed with flying colors.

And so it was. I never worked harder in any class, before or after. In addition to reading assignments, every week she would assign a writing task, sometimes requiring only one paragraph. I sweated and convulsed, edited and rewrote each assignment endlessly (and recall that this was before the age of word processors and PCs). Sometimes when I got my homework back, there were more red marks and comments from Miss Hoffman than there were words in the paragraph. I sweated greatly, but I learned. It was painful, yes, but even more, it was exhilarating. And I aced the final; somehow she forgave my initial failure and gave me an A- for the term.

From Miss Hoffman, I learned to read and I learned to write. More than that, I learned to love to read and write, both for my personal enjoyment and later, of course, for the immense help it gave me in my subsequent training and career.

I have but one lingering regret. After high school graduation, I never saw her again and never had the opportunity to give her my heartfelt thanks for all that she did for me. She recognized that I had the potential to learn far more but would only do so if she set the standard at a very high level and insisted that nothing less would be acceptable. Then she gave me a second chance to prove, or improve, myself. She was tough, but I knew that she was only being tough because she cared about me.

I have been told sometimes by high school students visiting Johns Hopkins that it is a great school, but they don't want to come here because it is "too hard." Learning is neither easy nor predictable. However, the best teachers know that the higher expectations are set, the more students learn. The best teachers offer "tough love," like Miss Hoffman, to take their students to the highest levels. Learning is hard work.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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