Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Favorite Teachers & Another Contest

I guess two of my favorite teachers would be from high school, Mr. Rankin (his first name, if I ever knew it, has vanished into the mists of time) and Miss Mary D. Black.

Mr. Rankin was a short man, bald, with a brow ridge you could rest a pencil on over small, dark eyes. He was very, very bright, deeply educated, and could make Shakespeare comprehensible and enjoyable. He loved to start discussions in our “gifted“ class, and had a talent for drawing out opinions in a way that made a student feel bright or clever or witty. One of my proudest moments in high school happened in his class when I ventured an opinion on a scene in Macbeth and he praised it, saying, “I never thought of it that way.”

Miss Black was also an English teacher but of a totally different sort. Miss Pederson, another English teacher, had already (in 1959!) picked up the notion that spelling and grammar were difficult and we shouldn’t be too concerned learning all those complicated rules. But Miss Black was of the opinion that her generation had learned to speak, spell, and write correctly, and, by gum, so would we. She was a tall woman, with silver hair set in disciplined waves, a big voice, a formidable bosom and a chin not to be trifled with. Even the football players in her classroom were afraid of her. And over and over down the years I have thought of her with gratitude. Deciding to become a writer is not the time to try to gain the tools of that trade. It was already having the tools that made that decision easier for me.

I was twenty-five or -six when I started college, part time. I took a class called Women in Medieval History, taught by a professor who had a singular prejudice against religion -- an odd stance, I thought, for someone who had devoted her life to the study of that profoundly religious period. In her first or second class she remarked sarcastically, “St. Augustine (she pronounced it ‘OW-gus-teen‘ in an exaggerated way) wrote that there is no such thing as evil,” eliciting a sycophantic chuckle from the freshmen sitting before her. Well, my hand shot up and I said, “I haven’t read St. Augustine (pronouncing it ‘uh-GUS-tin’), but C.S. Lewis wrote that there is nothing that is intrinsically evil; sin is the use of a good thing in a way or at a time that is forbidden. Is that what St. Augustine was talking about?” She conceded that it was. I did far more reading and research for that class than any other college-level course I took, trying to stay ahead of her. I wasn’t the only older student in her class, and by the end of the semester, many of us had her number, and I wasn’t alone in challenging some of her statements. Because of the extra effort I put into it, I learned more about medieval thought in her class than in almost any other class I took. For that reason I should also put her on my list of favorite teachers. (Her final comment? “Go ahead and fill out that teacher survey; I have tenure!”)


I will stitch your name first on a bookmark and send it to you if you can tell me: What are the “crystal spheres” of medieval astronomers? How many were there?

If more than one person sends me the correct answers (send them to, I will pick a winner from among them at random. Contest ends Thursday, September 9, at 8 pm, Central Daylight Time.


Marlyn said...

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus and others. In these celestial models the stars and planets are carried around by being embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs.
There are 27 spheres.

Betty Hechtman said...

I wonder if teachers realize how they can impact their students lives. Does it occur to them that years and years later a compliment or critcism might sit in someone's mind?

I had a teacher in fifth grade. He was a substitute and only there for a few weeks, but he was the first teacher I ever really connected with. I still remember the encouraging things he said to me.