English Teachers of My Youth: Mrs. Carter

10th grade: Mrs. Carter.

I did not like Mrs. Carter. This is important, because she was the first English teacher I decided I didn’t really care for. It wasn’t because she wasn’t good. She cared about us tremendously, employed creative means to educate us, and was always positive. But it’s important for me to know why.

There were four possible reasons I didn’t care much for Mrs. Carter:

1.I probably had some issues with female teachers I wasn’t aware of, as many boys do, especially in English, which was my subject. That might have played a part.
2. It was a year I began to feel moody for the first time as a teenager, and I probably took it out on her assignments.
3. Mrs. Carter seemed to treat us too much like children, and the last thing I wanted was to be treated like a child.
4. I honestly thought Mrs. Carter was dumb.

Now a sophomore, I was no longer a young one in high school. I had to prove myself. I had gotten my driver’s license, had joined the track team, made it into the school play, began a CD-burning cottage industry, sort of started dating a girl or two. It was a year of changes. I needed room to expand myself. Mrs. Carter seemed to me a teacher who was so naive she was out of touch and didn’t want to treat us like we were so mature. At the time, that was my perception.

I read The Odyssey for summer reading, trying to understand it front and back, and imagine the stories, and what did Mrs. Carter want to do? She wanted us to get up and act out 5-minute skits from the book. It’s a great teaching tool, but to a sophomore like me, this was stupid stuff for 5th graders.

She was tall woman with gray hair and a grandmotherly smile that said “I love kids and I know what they’re capable of, both good and bad.” She had a high voice made for addressing children, and even in her most frustrating moments never allowed us to doubt that everything she did was out of compassion for youth.

booths_caesarAfter reading Julious Caesar and taking myself so seriously for it, Mrs. Carter decided we should all have a party and wear togas and make a pretend dagger out of tin foil. She even had students bring in smoothies from a nearby shop called Zeus Juice, which I thought was lame considering Zeus was Greek and Caesar was Roman.

I had begun to become very belligerent, stubborn, and idealistically rigid in that year. I hated reading Things Fall Apart, not only because our dumb teacher couldn’t say Okonkwo’s name right—she kept stumbling over it, saying “Onkonk-onkonk-okonkwo”—I also rejected it because a Christian missionary is depicted as the villain. I failed to understand the nuances of interpretation one could bring to texts, and labeled it bad reading. But Mrs. Carter, with a sweet, sympathetic smile, would generously ask us to imagine ourselves in the place of our characters. I’d only been reading literature to validate my world, not challenge it. She planted a vital seed that failed to sprout that year, but later would grow.

I starkly remember what happened when reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. On a worksheet I responded to a question with the claim that this was a stupid book about a bunch of Jews that I didn’t care about. Mrs. Carter could have marked my anti-semitic outburst as some manifestation of prejudice and treat me like an ignorant bully. Instead, she pulled me out of class (and into the library, not just the hall) to sit down with me and ask me how I was doing, as well as where this rant was coming from. She knew this wasn’t coming from the normal me. Although I shrugged my shoulders and said I just didn’t like the book, I knew I was having a bad day, a bad week, a bad month. Sure, maybe I felt my Christian beliefs were insulted by one character’s belief that the Jews were still God’s chosen people, but I was also in a world-against-me mood. Mrs. Carter gave me a chance. I guess I eventually gave her one too.

The truth was, my immaturity failed to allow me to appreciate all Mrs. Carter did for us. She had a Shakespeare poster with the playwright/poet in a cape and tights with the caption “Superbard.” My friend and I shaped our chewed bubblegum and stuck it on the poster so that William had a small bubblegum penis and the sign read “Superhard.” She may have been a little out of touch with moody adolescent boys, but it was not her fault that I dismissed her role in my life at the time.

One strong takeaway in my own teaching I learned from Carter is that we shouldn’t be too afraid to do creative, fun things with older adolescents. It may be worth the risk of being cheesy and hokey for these older kids just to get them stirred up doing something different and unique that they’ll remember. If a goofy activity ties into an SOL, or at least rewards the kids for their hard work and shows them you care and they matter, consider doing it.

But during my student teaching I was privileged to speak to her, as she was now a substitute. She remembered me fondly, and had confidence that I, like her, would inspire kids and tolerate all the shenanigans they would give me. Still a very kind, generous heart who was made for education, even after all those years dealing with punks like us.

One response to “English Teachers of My Youth: Mrs. Carter

  1. Pingback: English Teachers of My Youth: Mr. Robinson | CALEB COY

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