Bad Teaching Personified

Prior to my sophomore year in high school, I had developed a robust crush on a social studies teacher named Mrs. Palmer. I can’t tell you how old she was – late twenties or early thirties would be my retrospective guess. She wasn’t the hot, mini-skirt-sporting bleached blonde that your typical adolescent boy might lust for but, rather, possessed a wholesome, girl-next-door prettiness, more Ingrid Bergman than Marilyn Monroe.

Ingrid Bergman

Anyway, you can’t imagine how excited I was when I received my class assignment for the academic year 1968-1969 and saw that I had Mrs. Palmer for World Cultures. This was the last year high school students attended classes in the old Rollins Building, and because of student overflow, she held class in what we called back in those days a trailer.

Old Summerville High

Not surprisingly, World Cultures was my favorite class. Mrs. Palmer was a demanding but even-keeled teacher who followed lesson plans that covered the gamut of whatever country we studied, and because I read my assignments, paid attention in class, and contributed to discussions, I did very well despite my chicken scratch handwriting and piss poor spelling.

Alas, no matter how witty, charming, and urbane I tried to be, somehow Mrs. Palmer managed not to succumb to the allure of a scrawny, pimply sixteen-year-old who reeked of secondhand smoke. And even if she had, it would have come to naught because, as luck would have it, after Christmas she followed her husband to a new job and was replaced by an older man I’m going to call Professor Plum.

To say that Professor Plum was eccentric is like saying that Notre Dame is gothic, or Calcutta is crowded; in other words, his weirdness was apparent as soon as you laid eyes on him, thanks in good part to the fact that the right lens of his glasses was shattered. I can’t imagine what the world looked through that those glasses, how his brain compensated for the semi-fractured view of what lay before him, but at least he didn’t bump into things, though for anyone engaged in a one-on-one conversation with him, it was – at least for me – unnerving.

In his sixties, tall and handsome with slicked back grey hair, he wore only two suits to class, a grey one and a blue one, and he sported the same brown scuffed wingtips no matter which suit he had chosen for the week. I recall that he addressed us collectively as “young people,” and often pointed the calendar on the bulletin board featuring presidents with Richard Nixon in the center. He would point to the calendar and say, “This country is in grave danger, young people, but that man on the calendar may be our salvation.”

Rather than covering the origins, history, and geographic locations of the countries, he focused solely on their cultural contributions, cuckoo clocks and yodeling for Switzerland, Voltaire and Debussy for France. His tests were ridiculously easy. I remember that he assigned each of us a country in the Asian section and tested us orally by asking one question – one question! – during a class period.

I had been assigned the Philippines, and clever boy that I was, I studied only the last section of the chapter devoted to folkways and cultural contributions.

Here’s my test.

Professor Plum: Rusty, what is the national dish of the Philippines?

Me: Dogs!

Professor Plum: Roasted over what?

Me: Hot coals?

Professor Plum: Yes. You receive a one hundred.

Me: Thank you, sir.

As it turned out, every single person in the class exempted the exam except one, whom he informed in class publicly that under him she would have qualified for exemption but that her performance under Mrs. Palmer meant that she had to take the exam.

I can say one thing positive about Professor Plum: his classroom management was excellent. No one, as they say, horsed around during class. I felt a little sorry for him. He had been a teacher and perhaps an administrator in Charleston County, and it seemed to me that something in his life had gone awry, perhaps he was a widower, perhaps he had money problems. At any rate, from my own stint as a department chair, I know how difficult it is to find a suitable replacement teacher in the middle of a semester.

On the other hand, I don’t feel all that sorry for him. Having only one final exam to grade in the spring is pretty damned sweet.

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