English Teachers of My Youth: Mrs. Barbour

Creative Writing and Journalism—Mrs. B

In my second half of high school, I sank my teeth into writing endeavors under a single teacher who would come to be one of the most influential teachers I would ever have: Mrs. Barbour.

Junior year was emotionally charged. Senior year inflated my ego. During that time I found a crazed refuge in one room. Mrs. B was a little unorthodox. I guess you need one of those in every school. She was part hippie. She lit her room by lamps instead of fluorescent tubes. She played music. Her classroom was mostly workshopping. She had a higher tolerance for things like cussing, but respected students who didn’t want to hear it. She attracted to her room the misfits, the unruly. She could handle them, and in some ways she paid a price for it. He room was also a challenging place for her to manage. She was an advocate for the students who didn’t fit in with the rules, but she also challenged them to at least, as a surviving mechanism, play along with the rules enough to get what they wanted out of that “prison” known as school. In her room I gained exposure to kids I hadn’t really gotten to know, and had already formed an opinion of.

Mrs. Barbour’s teaching philosophy was to keep everyone laughing so that students know they were learning. I once joked with her, “well it works! I never felt like I was learning anything!” She wanted us all to reach the point where we were proficient and comfortable with writing. She needed to laugh every day, and she needed her chickens to laugh too. She listened to us, even when we were bashing other teachers.

phish-4f2589ff1b2f1Creative Writing
Barbour might’ve been your typical liberal creative writing teacher. She was incredibly open-minded, even to closed-mindedness, at least enough to read some of parochial writing without berating me. She was unafraid to express her opinion, but not make us feel stupid or hateful for having ours. She would model a form of writing for us, give us more examples to look at if we wanted, and then have us write our own. She would play Phish and other artists while we worked. She would debate with me that Phish was better than Dave Matthews. She would have us write poems about paintings other students did in art class. That was awesome.

I still have the writing portfolio she evaluated. She put in-depth comments on every student’s work. Not just the generic stuff, but a personal evaluation of what kind of writer we had the potential to be. She told me I was very observant, so I titled my work “The Observer.”

When she let me borrow a copy of Ian Frazier’s Coyote vs. AcmeI suddenly wanted to write gleaming satire. I began to copy the styles of other works of literature into a small volume of satirical pieces making fun of high school. It wasn’t even an assignment. That’s how Mrs. B knew how to motivate.

Mrs. B would even let us sleep if we needed to. As long as we got our work done.

Our senior year, we made T-shirts that said, “SHS News: We Have Issues.” Our motley staff struggled to discipline ourselves under her regime. She was laid back, but knew how to harangue us into doing our work. She responded to us as teenagers, unafraid to be a little sassy and upfront.

I was interested in journalism, but really only to express my opinions, which were often misinformed and lacking political correctness. If I wanted an opinion column, I would have to work for it. She said I’d have to do sports writing. I said I said no, hated it, that it was all reporting scores and dumb quotes. She said I could interview the girls on the volleyball team. I said “deal.”

Then she set up a unique situation: A point-counterpoint column between me and the resident incendiary atheist. It was messy. I thought I was writing pure common sense against an angry tirade of ignorance. In truth, we were both ignorant, and both embarrassing ourselves. But nonetheless, Mrs. B gave me that opportunity to learn the lessons then before my world got even bigger. She allowed me to put myself out there and open myself to criticism in front of my peers, because she trusted that I could handle it, and that I needed to learn it then for the future.

I was mean to Mrs. Barbour a few times, but it was a sign she was cool. Even though I vehemently disagreed with her on a number of beliefs, I still appreciated her style and her caring attitude.

I carry some of her traits as a teacher. I’m more laid back than some, though not as much as her. I try to include elements of creative writing and journalism (not offered where I teach) in the classroom. Teaching older students, I employ the occasional playful sassy camaraderie, while I do give them strikes for cussing. I teach with the lights off when I can. I listen to their opinions and give them a forum for expressing them. I try to give meaningful comments. And I remind students that school isn’t about school, but about life, and while the rules and the material may be absurd, you just gotta learn how to play the system in a way that respects your fellow human beings and grants you the opportunities you deserve to give yourself.

I had a teacher who was very aware of what students brought to the classroom, and I try to do that as well. And most of all, one of the best ways to prevent discipline problems, aside from respect and preparedness, is to diffuse with humor.

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

  1. I had her in college for two semesters. She is amazing, and it was her that made me enjoy writing as well. She was the best teacher I ever had!

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