Under the Influence

I was sitting with my son the other day trying to put myself in his shoes as a junior in high school. Reaching back into the past felt like long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. But the memory fog cleared a bit and the first memory that came to mind was my sophomore year when I had my favorite teacher in high school. You know the one — just by their very nature they made you a better person and gave you a 1,000 gifts that take the rest of your life to fully appreciate.

Then my memory jumped to senior year. I had my favorite teacher again, and I have warm, fuzzy memories of me finally coming into my own at school and getting involved in the senior year activities and getting to know lots of other people outside of my usual circle.

Then for a brief merciful moment I thought, maybe nothing significant happened during junior year. But then the full force of memory came flooding back — I clearly must have suppressed it as a coping mechanism.

Miss Satta.

I can assure you that all my high school friends who are reading this right now are shuddering — whether they had her not. She was legendary, and not in a good way. She influenced me in an entirely different way than my favorite teacher. More in the way that makes you twitch. So here’s a salute to all the really bad teachers out there. You do teach us stuff; here are 7 of them from Miss Satta.

  1. 4 dresses do not a work wardrobe make. Sure she rotated them, but we weren’t fooled. She wore the same dresses week after week, and we were bored enough that we made a guessing game of which one she would wear the next day.
  2. To distract your audience from the fact that you don’t know much about the main topic, go into great detail about stupid stuff.  We read only one book the entire year, The Scarlet Letter, but boy did we cover basic grammar points ad nauseam. And in every example sentence she used the name “Roscoe” because she said she had learned that when you use a real student name they don’t like. Hey Einstein, they also don’t like it when you don’t teach them jack, but apparently she never learned that lesson. She also had no problem calling us by other, not-so-nice names, so she wasn’t even consistent in her weird thinking. See lesson #5.
  3. Don’t judge a fellow student by how annoying you find them. We learned to admire a classmate — let’s call her “Roscoe” — who was kind of annoying and didn’t get jokes and said weird things that didn’t make a lot of sense. But one day she became our hero. In addition to owning only 4 dresses, Miss Satta also had body odor. Those of us who sat close to the front, including Roscoe, dreaded it when Miss Satta moved away from the blackboard and toward the desks, and we learned to hold our breath until she moved back away. But one day, Roscoe bold as brass came in and put one of those fragrant stickups under her desk. She didn’t even try to hide what she was doing. She pulled the thing out of her backpack, peeled off the sticker, and put it under her desk. We looked back and forth between her and Miss Satta, her and Miss Satta like a tennis match. But no dramatic scene ensued. Miss Satta often didn’t acknowledge us anyway, but still, but we learned that day how to use it to our advantage and not to judge our classmates.
  4. You can learn empathy for classmates you previously judged. Miss Satta sometimes turned her beady, dark eyes on the hapless study hall kid in our class. For reasons that make no sense in a non-education adult world, they would sometimes put kids who had a scheduled study hall in the back of actual classes. Mr. Gorneau was the unlucky bastard stuck in our class. We actually never learned his first name as Miss Satta only referred to him as Mr. Gorneau. I will admit that as honors we typically looked down on kids like him — he was clearly a D-track student, smelled like cigarettes and pot, and spent most of the class with his head down. But as a fellow Miss Satta victim, we understood he was one of us, and we felt bad for him. I mean we had to be there, but this poor kid had a right to put his head down and sleep if he wanted to. But Miss Satta was forever riding Mr. Gorneau, telling him to wake up and calling him out on various other made-up infractions. She only let up on him when she would call us names, which leads me to number five.
  5. If you learn the fine art of insulting people without actually calling them a bad name, you will go far in life. Even back in those Wild West educational times a teacher could probably get in trouble for calling a student a swear word, especially if somebody complained about it loudly enough. But they couldn’t get in trouble for calling you vaguely insulting things that aren’t bad words. To relieve our extreme boredom in her class, we often talked amongst ourselves, guessing which dress she’d wear or discussing whose turn it was to ask about our tragically lost papers on the character of Pearl from The Scarlet Letter. Did I mention we read just one book in that class? Of course, she didn’t like our chatter, but actually teaching us something so we wouldn’t talk never seemed to occur to her. Instead she called us weird names, like I was “the instigator” and she called another classmate a tick. She had other nicknames for us, and maybe her sole purpose was to have us puzzle over why the hell she was calling us those names, so we wouldn’ notice that she wasn’t teaching us a damn thing.
  6. Ask for what you need but don’t be invested in the answer. So Miss  Satta never did return the papers we wrote about Pearl, the little girl in The Scarlet Letter, henceforth forever known as “The Pearl papers.” When she didn’t hand them back immediately, we were simply puzzled. Then weeks passed and we got mad. We were nerds, we cared about our grades, and we’d spent a lot of time writing the bloody things. As the weeks turned into months, we decided to ask her every week about them just to see what she would say. She was impervious to our scheming. She always had a vague excuse and had no shame at all about it. She also knew the one thing we had yet to learn: in the classroom she had all the power. When we did write other papers her grading was so arbitrary it made us sometimes wish for the fate of the Pearl papers. She’d hand us back a paper that had a C- on it and no other marks. We were students who did not get C’s, ever, so of course we’d hold our breath and approach her desk where she lorded over us. We’d ask politely if she could explain why she’d given us the grade. She’d take the paper and run her beady, dark little eyes up and down it. then she’d take her pen scratch out the C-, put a B+ and then hand it back. For nerds like us who were trying to improve ourselves, or at least figure out what we needed to do to get an A, this was almost worse than not getting the paper back at all. Finally we had enough. We screwed up our courage to tell someone in authority about the great educational injustice and fraud we were enduring. We gathered the regraded papers and the story of the phantom Pearl papers, as well as a number of other facts to support our argument. After sympathetically listening to the litany of Miss Satta’s crimes and misdemeanors, the teacher we told sat us down and then shot us down with one sentence. “She’s got tenure, so short of her running through the halls naked, there’s nothing you can do to get her fired.” Which taught us about #7.
  7. Revenge is sweet, like scarlet frosting. So we learned if your mature, responsible, well-argued stand doesn’t work and only teaches you that she who holds the power, controls the situation, you can go to Plan B. This teaches you that they who are teenagers with friends and access to a vehicle can exact their own revenge. So we toilet papered the tree in her front yard and then took red frosting and drew a big “A” on her mailbox. Points for literary wit, and penalty for making it kind of obvious who the perpetrators were. It felt really good, though, and we could make a case for ourselves — who expects good kids like us to do such things?

We were merely motivated kids who just wanted their goddamn Pearl papers back. In the end she was maddeningly consistent in her dismissal of us — the toilet papering/frosted “A” incident never even came up, not even rumor or innuendo. It was an educational stalemate. But we sure did learn a lot.

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