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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What teacher changed your life?

Today I learned that Ellen McComb Smith is dead.

You've probably never heard of her unless you went to Roosevelt High School in Seattle from the 50's through the 70's. She'd been in the back of my mind a lot lately, but I started Googling around for her after reading about the forward lurch that Florida is making toward restricting freedom of expression for state educators. Florida is but one of several states that have been inspired by former liberal recreant turned neocon sorehead, David Horowitz, who thinks that poor captive conservative students are being bludgeoned by corrupt ideologies at the hands of liberal college professors, and he wants to put a stop to it.

In other words, he wants to put the state in control of what can and can't be taught.

I thought of Ellen McComb Smith because I started to wonder what my life would be like if she hadn't been my high school English teacher, and had she not been free to speak her mind in the largely white Republican school district I hailed from. I learned that she died in 2003 at the age of 86. It's too late for me to tell her what a difference she made in my life. But I can tell you.

By the time I got to Roosevelt High School in the late 70's, I was firmly indoctrinated in right-wing ideology. I can shamefully admit now that the deprogramming has kicked in that as a teenager I used to be a big fan of William F. Buckley, and while in grade school I came home every day to watch the Watergate hearings, convinced Nixon was getting a raw deal. I can't even tell you how I got that way, because my parents -- although nominally Republican -- weren't all that reactionary. I guess I was just the product of a very sheltered upbringing and a culture of sterile, white suburban smugness, extrapolating way too much from way too little experience.

I could've easily grown up to be Monica Crowley, or worse (shudder) Ann Coulter.

Everyone dreaded getting E.M. Smith for high school English. Not because she was liberal but because she was tough. She was in her final year of teaching before retirement, and on the first day of class, she enthralled me. She stood about 5'1", and favored velvet magenta pantsuits over lucite high-heels with goldfish in them. And she loved to challenge us. I was swollen as a chipmunk after having four impacted wisdom teeth extracted when she handed me a copy of Spengler's Decline of the West (which she largely disagreed with) and said "read this."

But the moment I remember with distinct clarity was the day she told us she was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Now, this was a pretty ballsy thing to say in front of a group of future Hannitys who had been raised to think that the ACLU was a cabal run by communists for the benefit of shameless perverts. But she stood up, raised her head high, and told us the law was not carved out in the comfortable middle of society. If a law was fair, it had to be applicable to all, even those who might be the most desperate and unsympathetic. That if we saw the ACLU defending someone otherwise completely unsavory, as they often were, it was because the social fringe was the place that the freedoms we all cherished were most likely to erode.

I'm paraphrasing, because I'm certain she said it much more eloquently and with spotless grammar. But for some reason, and I can't explain why, I heard hear. The giant dark rock that was my brain cracked open and light poured in. That sounds fair, I thought, I get it. That thought stayed with me for days. Weeks. Then it started to grow. And a year later, I was living in San Francisco, working at a muckraker newspaper with old Berkeley refugees like Paul Krassner and Art Goldberg and cursing the twin evils of Tammany Hall politics and corporate greed.

I'm sorry, E. M., I never finished Decline of the West, but I did learn to throw around terms like Dionysian and Apollonian Nature Knowledge and pretend it was my favorite book. I apologize for all the poor grammar and atrocious spelling, because some thing never really did get any better. But I guess I'm not the only one whose life you changed. I came across this piece written on the occasion of your passing by Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education:
She was a great teacher -- demanding, knowledgeable and dedicated to students learning to read, write and think. I had her as a sophomore and as a senior...I know that she influenced my life in more ways than just my educational achievements....

Mrs. Smith did not go into teaching because it was the only professional choice available to her and she didn't stay at Roosevelt High School because of great colleague support. She told me, as she did countless other students, that her goals in life were to raise a family (which she did) and to teach. Her advice to me as I was preparing to go to college was to get a liberal arts education and to choose a profession I loved....

[R]ight now, there are more Mrs. Smiths in teaching than you might think. Individuals who love their work, find meaning in it and who think that the best definition of social justice is teaching ALL kids to read, write and think for themselves. What is causing them to abandon their life's work is the reduction of teaching to a teacher-proof curriculum and testing that says there is only one right answer to a problem. There is very little time left to work with students on intellectually engaging projects and even less time to have dialogues about how the curriculum relates to what is happening after school.

Today, Mrs. Smith would not be able to teach the project-based curriculum she organized so well for all students in her classroom. Five years ago, I had the opportunity to tell her what she had done for me and that I had indeed gone into teaching.
I stayed in contact with E. M. for a year or so after high school, enough time for her to see me transformed, but I don't know if she realized how big a part she played in that transformation. I don't think I was self-aware enough at the time to realize it myself. It surprised me today when I read the news of her death, and realized I'd never be able to thank her for all she did, that I broke down and cried. She was a very big and fundamental part who I am and what I became, and I guess I always thought she would be there.

No wonder they want to stifle liberal teachers. The person who can get through to someone at the right time, who can drag kids out of their cocoons of ignorance and teach them to think for themselves is the most dangerous person of all to the neocon ideology. Anyone who can look critically at the faulty straw man logic of Faux News and can't be whipped into foaming indignation by the cattle prod of fundamentalism is immune to their propaganda machine.

So in honor of all the Ellen McComb Smith's out there, and in defiance of David Horowitz and all the other mouth-breathers who want to strip them of their voices and their students of all independent and creative though, tell me -- what teacher changed your life? 'Cos I really need to hear it today.

(Photo courtesy stock.xchng)