When former students stay in touch with me, it is the honor of my life. Sometimes, they send me things like this: an essay written by a young woman, now in her final year of college, contemplating how and why she chose to study education. In a few months, she'll have a high-school English classroom of her very own, which makes my heart grow three sizes.
Quite aside from the huge shot to my ego, this essay reveals an important idea, integral to my message in Beyond Mama Bear: teenagers long for boundaries. This child does not recall being my friend, or enjoying my company (indeed, I am not sure she even liked me). Instead, she writes about being challenged, called on the carpet, made to meet her potential. Like the Mother Falcon or the Soldier, adults who work with teenagers do best to toe those lines which make us seem so unpleasant to our kids As this former student shows, it's worth it, every time.
Ms. Hamer's essay reminds us how important it is to reinforce boundaries and keep expectations high. It seems so germane to our topic I asked--after making her promise to read it at my funeral--if she would guest-author this blog post. She agreed; I am so glad.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud to introduce the future of American education--a young woman who cares fiercely, reads deeply, has a fine head on her shoulders, and will be a most excellent English teacher--Elizabeth Hamer, Class 0f 2015.
From Professional Bullshitter to English Teacher
By ELIZABETH M. HAMER
Freshman year, first period, first day, first time in high school. That’s when it started. I walked down the stairs into the dungeon (that’s what my older siblings called the sketchy basement classroom) and was greeted by a peculiar teacher. She was young and enthusiastic (her first teaching job, I’ll bet).
She welcomed us: “Get ready for a whirlwind year.” As she handed us the syllabus: “Don’t fool yourselves. This isn’t going to be an easy class.” I looked over the reading list: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Of Mice and Men, Old Man and the Sea. She held them in the air: “They may look small, but these books are complex and mighty.”
“Whatever you say, Lady. I don’t really plan on reading them, anyway,” I thought to myself.
You see, for the previous nine years of my schooling I had rarely, if ever, finished a required book. It started early, when I was placed in a program called “Chapter 1.” I was pulled out of class by a mean ogre lady and forced to read a bunch of crappy books aloud because I was categorized as a “struggling reader.” How they decided I was struggling I will never know, because I was six and had never been assigned to read before, but all of a sudden I was behind.
Well, thanks to this “enrichment” program, I did get behind. I was never actually in class when the good readers were reading. I missed reading books alongside my peers and learning to enjoy them together. My mom never understood why I was a “Chapter 1” reader, either. She read a lot to us kids when we were growing up. I remember Boomer goes to School, Frog and Toad, The Hungry Caterpillar, and I’ll Love You Forever, I’ll Like You for Always. I remember these books so well, in fact, I could probably recite them to you off-the-cuff. Books and stories were nothing new to me but still I landed in “Chapter 1,” where I gradually learned to hate reading because I now felt slow, stupid, and unteachable.
During my “Chapter 1” years, reading stopped being about fun stories and started to become a chore. After a few years of always being behind, by fifth grade I pretty much gave up reading. “If I can’t finish, why even start?” I often argued. Ironically, this argument served me fairly well. I was always able to pass quizzes and tests, and even summarize novels we discussed in class, without turning a single page. Less effort from me equaled a bigger reward.
This is the attitude I carried, as a newborn freshman, right into Mrs. Filholm’s English class. Huge mistake. We started with The Old Man and the Sea. I read enough of it to understand the basic idea of what was going on—an old man out at sea looking for a marlin; he has a lot of crappy luck; also something about sharks. I read enough, in other words, to pretend to know what was going on should I be asked to speak in class. Stupid, stupid mistake.
Here’s how it went one day:
MRS. FILHOLM: Everyone grab some paper; I want you to draw a scene from the book.
ME: I’ve got this. Art. I know art; I can bullshit art.
MRS. FILHOLM: Also, please be sure to include some aspect of symbolism you saw in the novel.
ME:: Shit. [So I draw an awesome picture of a man, sitting in a boat, at sea.]
MRS. FILHOLM: Explain your drawing to us, please.
ME: Well, this is the old man during the beginning of the book sitting in his boat waiting for the fish.
MRS. FILHOLM: That’s a very nice drawing. I especially like his beard.
ME: Thank you. [I go to sit down.]
MRS. FILHOLM: Hold on, explain to us where you included symbolism.
ME: Shit. Speak some decent garbage. [Out loud:] Uhhhh . . . the water symbolizes life and how it can be deep and vast and smooth and rough.
MRS. FILHOLM: Okay, take a seat.
ME: Whew! See? I escaped! Reading does nobody any good! [Sat smugly the rest of class.]
And then. As I was leaving.
MRS. FILHOLM: Elizabeth. Just read the book.
ME: I did read it.
MRS. FILHOLM: No, you didn’t. Go home this weekend, read it, and email me the non-sparknoted symbols you find in the text.
“Game on,” I thought to myself.
Long story short, I lost the game.
I never again tried to fool Mrs. Filholm. She saw through all the bullshit, and for the first time I had to actually try in an English class. She required so much more from me than mere summarizing and regurgitation of information; she required me to think, to ask myself what the author was actually saying and how. I was reading books; I was reading them on time. I was evaluating characters and setting, even plot. The trimester seemed to fly by, and even though it was really hard, I enjoyed the challenge.
For the next couple of years, I fell back into my old habits. I took a lot of reading quizzes and wrote a lot of essays but that was pretty much it. I wasn’t evaluating or analyzing . . . Hell, I wasn’t even reading. I could usually pass multiple-choice reading quizzes; anything else I could easily lie and fib my way through; if we had an essay I could fluff it; if it was a presentation I was an expert googler. The one exception was a Contemporary Lit class I took (an elective), which had an extensive reading list--more books required in one trimester than in any other class I had taken. This class focused on reading for enjoyment and valuing the interesting aspects of each story; I was reading again for fun. And then, it came time to register for my senior-year classes, and I decided to test for honors English.
For nearly the entirety of my high school career I lacked challenge. I never cared enough to do a good job on anything. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I was some huge slacker or anything. I got all A’s and B’s, but I did just enough to keep those grades and never really had a hard time doing it. A lot of my friends were in honors and advanced placement courses and I had never taken a single one; I only took college-prep courses. Maybe I had just finally had enough of my friends thinking they were infinitely more intelligent than I was. It was time to show them, so I tested for honors English.
It was a grueling test full of poetry and grammar questions. It took me about an hour. It was hard. It was really hard. I walked away from it not knowing what my score would be, but knowing at least I had tried. The results came out; I joined the others to look for my name on a piece of paper. I scanned and scanned. Finally, I found it: I didn’t pass.
I was embarrassed and slightly heartbroken. I walked away pissed-off and disappointed in myself. My friends asked me about the results. I tried to play it off like it was no big deal, like I didn’t care. I kept thinking to myself, “Guess I should have tried. Guess I should have paid attention in class. Guess I should have studied. I guess I’m not that smart.” I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I didn’t. I never brought it up to any teacher or begged to re-test. I just wanted to move on.
A few weeks later I got an email. It said that the cutoff test score had been changed and I was now being accepted into honors English. I considered not accepting the invitation. My ego was shot and I no longer felt the drive to excel or get better. Then the announcement came: the original honors teacher was gone. Mrs. Filholm would be taking over.
I was excited now. The only teacher who ever challenged me and saw through my shenanigans was going to guide me through the hardest class I’ve ever taken.
We met for the first time at the end of junior year to discuss our summer assignments. If it wasn’t Mrs. Filholm’s class I probably never would have considered my summer reading, but I knew better. We had to read Invisible Man, and analyze the crap out of it. I was highlighting symbols of this and references to that; I was a literary champion. We met a few times over the summer to discuss the book and practice different formats and types of writing. Then senior year began.
It really was a whirlwind. Over the course of the year we read dozens of books. I read dozens of books, from Huxley to Emerson to Bronte to Shakespeare and everything in between. Mrs. Filholm helped us (and forced us) to really evaluate literature. She gave me books to read I never would have picked up before. They were books full of complex language and literary devices I never would have known without them.
More than that, she taught us to write. We wrote with a purpose and a vision. She taught us techniques and format. We wrote everything from essays to articles poetry, things I had never whole-heartedly attempted in any other class.
She helped us understand the meaning of words, to care about them, and to evaluate their use. She helped us to find our voice as writers and our voice as members of society.
Mrs. Filholm did so much more than drill us in academics. She taught this hodgepodge group of brainiacs, jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, and misfits to embrace each other. We learned to value our comrades--their ideas, insights, experiences, and character. And as we learned to embrace each other we learned, as a group, to embrace writers.
Most importantly I was taught to ask, “Why?”
Why is the writer telling me this? Why does it matter? Why am I here? Why should I matter?
Without Mrs. Filholm I never would have learned to appreciate literature and I never would have thought to become a teacher. She showed me what a good teacher looks like and what a good teacher can do for her students. Mrs. Filholm took me from a Chapter 1 professional bull-shitter to an English scholar and future teacher.
Elizabeth M. Hamer will earn her English and Secondary Education degrees from Metropolitan State University of Denver this year. She enjoys photography, basketball, and (of course) literature. Nothing is more inspirational to her as a writer than her family, friends, and students. Follow her on Facebook and on twitter @LizHamer58.