One thing that amazes me about teachers is how much power they really have in shaping their students’ futures, and how sickeningly often they seem to blow it. Don’t get me wrong, I highly respect teachers, but I wish more of them would take courses on leadership, or at the very least people skills. Case and point, “The Demon.”
In high school there was this teacher who almost no one liked, not staff nor students. Depending on who you talked to she was either the most self-righteous, annoying, and power-tripping teacher to ever walk the halls, or (in rare cases) the most just and fair teacher you could ask for. Like most, I was of the former opinion, even though I started by being of the later.
I’m sure you can guess some about her attitude and how people felt about her based on the nickname alone, but the urban legends which roamed the school regarding The Demon revealed exactly how deeply the dislike (I would almost say “hatred”) ran with the students:
- She walked with a limp. Two reasons were given for this. One legend had it that a student had once pushed her down the stairs and broke her hip. The other said that a student had once thrown a desk at her, breaking her leg and hip.
- She once had a bird die in school. The Demon loved her parakeets. So much so she once brought them to school. Legend had it that a student killed one of her birds, dressed it up in a tiny suit, taped its wing to its crotch, and stuffed it in her purse.
Both of these, of course, were wishful thinking on the part of the students, most of whom gleefully passed on the legends to any incoming freshmen and sophomores, especially if they were unfortunate enough to be in one of The Demon’s classes. However, these were still only legends: while she indeed got hip replacement surgery, it wasn’t because of a student, it was because of arthritis. As for the bird, she had once brought her pet parakeets to school, where a student opened the cage and one flew away.
To her credit, she was a good English teacher. Very good. The problem was that in order to be as good as she was, The Demon felt it necessary to be demeaning to anyone who didn’t believe as she believed, did exactly as she asked. (“Commanded” may be a better description of her edicts or requests, whatever they were.) She was sort of the Richard Dawkins of teaching: it wasn’t good enough to feel you were right, you had to be a jerk to anyone who disagreed with you. (This is an unfair characterization of Dawkins, but it should get the point across.) She was also very much into the crony system: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Of course, her idea of you scratching her back (as repulsive a thought as that was and still is) was to always do all your homework and do it right. Do things right, and you would stay on her graces, even be showered with random extra points for no apparent reason that counted towards your final grade. Fall from her graces, however, and you were on her shiat-list permanently.
As you can probably guess, not many people could stay on her graces.
My problems with The Demon started when we started with our reading assignments. One of her requirements was that we should be reading an approved novel every day. Since no fantasy or science fiction books were allowed, I asked her for an opinion. She recommended Tom Clancy’s books, and I got to reading. Surprisingly to me at the time, I loved them: The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears, Without Remorse… all of these were novels I raced through, at the pace of more than 100 pages a night, 50 on a bad night. At one point, The Demon also bought a Tom Clancy book for me to borrow and read.
This was all well and good, until one week I started coming in with having read at most only 50 pages per night. “You’re slipping,” I remember her saying. All I knew how to do was apologize, since I didn’t think she would really care that I had been ramping up my violin and double bass practice to three and four hours a night. By the end of that week I had gone from being one of her golden boys to the bottom of the totem pole. I stopped receiving the extra points she would randomly toss around to those she thought deserved the extra points (regardless of their grades in the class), was insulted regularly, and those led to ever lowering grades. While at the first quarter I had received an A in the class, with a 99% overall grade percentage, by the time the third quarter came about my grade had dropped to a D. I eventually finished the class with a C.
To a certain extent, I understand now why she did what she did: she had seen what my level of excellence was and when she saw me slipping to a lower level — 50 pages a night instead of 100 — she began to give me a hard time in order to get me back on track. Unfortunately, she never really explained this, and instead of trying to help me or even find out why my production had dropped, she told me that I was lazy and should work as hard as Chan, the Vietnamese girl who sat next to me. Apparently, the fact that I was now performing with two orchestras and a band in the middle of the high season for music — Christmas time — was of no concern. Her class was of utmost importance.
This incident revealed to me why people thought so badly about her. Of course, this wasn’t the only incident to reveal so, just the first.
I took English with Mrs. Demon during my sophomore year in high school. This was the same year the University of Florida played Florida State University at the Sugar Bowl. The Demon had been invited to the game, and while she didn’t know who to root for — before she went, she couldn’t have cared less about football — she still went. (Not liking football is no reason to turn down a free trip to the French Quarter in New Orleans, right?)
The Monday after she returned from her trip, we walked in to find the words “Sugar is Sweet” written in large letters across the whiteboard. At the beginning of class, she explained what the words meant by asking a simple question: “Did anyone see the FSU game this weekend? Do we have any Gators fans in here?” She asked that last question with pampas spite usually reserved for Democrats. (Politics and the classroom mixed quite often that year in English.) All of us knew right there and then who she ended up rooting for. As it turned out, some UF fans sitting near her were a bit drunk and unruly. This led her to presume that all UF students were drunk and unruly, so out of her need for a sense of moral superiority, she instantly became an FSU fan. Lucky for her, FSU won the game.
Personally, I can’t say I even remember the game. I was never really a fan of either school’s football team (although I pretended to be became one when courting The Wife, a UF alumni), so I didn’t bother watching it. Nevertheless, I made the unfortunate mistake of wearing my sherbet orange Tampa Bay Buccaneers jacket and a pair of blue jeans that day. Orange and blue, as you may know, are the school colors of the University of Florida. A kid sitting next to me had also worn orange and blue, but his came in the form of a UF Gators Football t-shirt. After her little victory speech in front of a class of mostly confused (and thoroughly annoyed) students, The Demon moved to stand in front of both me and the other kid.
“Oh,” she said, “what do we have here? A couple of Gator fans? How does it feel to have lost so badly?”
She turned to the first kid, waiting for an answer. “Eh, it’s a game. It was close.”
“Close?!” she said in total surprise. “My dear, you obviously didn’t watch the game. Three times the Seminoles made it towards the end zone. Three.” She put up three fingers. “Sure they didn’t score, but they didn’t need to. They proved that had they needed the points, they could have gotten them.” (Years later, I’m still wrestling with that logic. If you’re near the end zone and don’t score, it’s because you can’t, not because you simply let the other team have it easy.)
“Eh, whatever. I still like my team,” he replied.
She turned to me. “And what about you? What did you think, hmm?”
“Frankly, I didn’t really care,” I told her. “This is a Bucs jacket, see?” I pointed to the large picture of Buccaneer Bruce on the jacket, and the words “TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS” emblazoned on the arms. I continued, “I’m also a [University of Miami] Hurricanes fan. I like neither the Gators nor the Noles.”
“Of course, Miami. Another losing team,” she replied. (The Hurricanes lost the National Championship that year to Nebraska.) “Still, orange and blue… those are Gator colors, you know,” she said as she walked away.
“Yep, I know,” I replied. “Doesn’t change the facts.”
She continued, “I guess I wouldn’t want to associate myself with them either.”
Right then I thought about becoming a Gators fan, purely out of spite. (Remember that in the American South, football is not a sport: it’s a religion.) I couldn’t, but I did start hating FSU even more. That’s just as good, right? Funny thing that even to this day, no matter who FSU is playing, I’m almost always rooting for the other team. (Unless they’re playing the ‘Canes, when instead I wish for a meteor to strike the field and obliterate both teams. Nuke them from space: it’s the only way to be sure they both lose.)
“By the way,” she said from her desk, “have any of you ever had gator meat? It tastes just like chicken.”
For the next week, The Demon kept on with the game, eventually changing her official mailing address to include the words “Florida State”, instead of the postal code “FL”. From that point on, in her class, wearing a University of Florida shirt was reason for insult, unless you were one of the few on her graces by that time.
Later on in the year I came to school a few minutes late, so I had to get a late pass from the office. My being late to my first class, Orchestra, wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence, so I wasn’t new to the process. Still, the fact that you’re reading this should tell you who was manning the tardy desk that day.
By this time, I had started to work with my violin teacher on training for my auditions to various music schools. I only had two years to prepare, so time was short. This morning, however, my passion for music came under fire as The Demon decided to deride it.
“You play the violin?” she asked in her usual snide manner.
“Yeah, I’ve been playing for five years. I’m the concert master of the orchestra.” I grabbed my hall pass and started walking away.
“You know, unless you work on your English you’ll never get anywhere in life. Don’t count on doing anything with music unless you’re a Mozart or Beethoven.”
Of all the pampas, self righteous, demeaning things to say! I tried to hold it in, but I lost it. “You’re right,” I yelled, “I won’t be as good as them. I’ll be better.” I stormed out of that room determined to prove her wrong.
In later years, ironically, it would be my music which would lead me to my career as writer. On the one hand, the fact that I have become a fairly successful writer at a relatively young age proves that I was able to do something in spite of The Demon’s damning grades, which makes me want to tell her “Suck it, Demon!” On the other hand, the fact that she was right about my dependency on English in order for me to succeed career-wise makes me wonder whether I should be thanking her. (That last one, though, feels a bit like thanking Saddam Hussein for teaching us how bad dictatorships are.)
I guess the lesson here is that no matter how good you are at what you do and no matter how right you may be, unless you work on your people skills, people will hate you, especially if you’re a jerk. Still, if I ever see her again I might actually thank her, since I’ve used a lot of what she taught in my carreer, or at least at the beginning of it. Then again, I might just push her down the stairs. Heck, I may do both, so long as no one’s watching. (I’m joking here, folks. I don’t advocate violence.)