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Odd School Days

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Wally Niebart

From time to time, I think about what distinguishes a great teacher from a mediocre one. I know all the clichés, such as devotion to students, passion for learning, and love of the subject. The problem is that several of the great teachers on my list violated one or more of those platitudes. A few, for example, regarded students much like the English academic who defined teaching as casting imitation pearls before genuine swine.

When recently thinking about great teachers in my past, however, I finally saw a true common denominator. They were all a bit odd. Take the most brilliant lecturer among them. He strode into the classroom, scrawled cryptic, undecipherable words on the blackboard, then spoke passionately for 50 minutes. It was enough to make you forget his weird affectations, such as the fact that in his mouth he always had a hard cough drop that rattled around like castanets; punctuated his insights with a loud "hah!"; and played with his belt buckle in a strange, two-handed manner that threatened to expose far more knowledge than we wished to have. He lectured entirely without notes, except when he quoted someone. At that point he would exclaim, "As Luther said . . ." and give the citation in the original language, from memory. After the obligatory "hah!" he would rustle in the pocket of his tweed jacket, pull out a rumpled note card, and read the translation.

My most concentrated semester of good teaching, as well as academic eccentricity, came not at an elite institution, but rather during a half-year sentence I served in a California community college. Although the intellectual circumstances were not promising — the two most popular majors were cosmetology and car repair — I had three outstanding teachers, each quite odd. The trademark outfit of the first included a shabby dark jacket and a heavy blue sweater he wore under it, both of which served to accent his world-class beer belly. In itself, the attire would not seem especially peculiar, except that we are talking about early summer in the Central Valley of California, when the temperature begins to edge into triple digits. Yet he never perspired, while those of us in T-shirts and cut-offs sweltered. Although clearly a man who had read far too many bad papers, he lavished the most minute attention on our natterings, encouraging us — in flowery language reminiscent of a romance novel — to do better.

The next two on my list regarded students as a necessary evil. One was an aging roué, elegant and urbane, reputedly the real author of a popular bawdy novel that bore his father's name. He put the "physical" in physical anthropology. He piqued our curiosity with every off-color bit of trivia about humankind known to science. Whether or not this was well-calculated pedagogy or just the product of a dirty mind, it worked. Few of us cut class lest we miss a single precious nugget of scatological knowledge. Some begged for extra credit.

In my community college galaxy of effective teachers, the final star ruled by terror. Her subject and accent were German, and I will call her Frau B because that is one of the names we called her, although not the most common. Her appearance alone incited fear. She was of indeterminate age, skeletal — probably the victim of an eating disorder — and in a perpetual rage. We speculated that anyone so ferocious must be on intimate terms with both the Devil and the Grim Reaper. When she dismissed our efforts as beneath contempt — in other words when she was being herself — we imagined her summoning a Satanic friend to carry us off to language hell. Her motto might as well have been "Conjugate or Die." I never did better in a language class.

If I were to try to distill my experiences with good teachers into a commencement address for a bright group of young men and women heading off for lives in the classroom, I would utter all the obligatory platitudes. Caring about your subject and your students does, after all, matter. The best of my teachers did care passionately about their subject, even if some were determined to protect it from desecration by students. I would nonetheless end my commencement address with the following stirring words: "Venture forth, future teachers and, for the sake of all that is good and noble in our profession, DARE TO BE ODD!"

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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