Line in the Sand: Who was your favorite teacher?
Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography
OPINION1: BARRY KAUFMAN
While the tone of this column is generally confrontational in nature, as evidenced by its name “A Line in the Sand,” every once in a while Courtney and I come across an idea that engenders more a sense of cooperation between the two of us and gives us a chance to share the same side of that line. In honor of it almost being back to school time (thank you God), Courtney thought it would be an opportune time for us to talk about our favorite teacher.
Some things you just can’t argue about, and a good teacher is one of them. But I’ll try.
Because as each of us chooses one teacher to hold up as the single most important in our respective formative years, I can assure you that mine was way better. You see, not all teachers are created equal. And mine have been all over the map.
In college, I had a communications professor whose name escapes me, along with most of what I learned in college. What I do remember of him was the vague notion that no one had told him exactly what he was supposed to be teaching us. For the most part, he would simply wander around the classroom, polishing his enormous belt buckle and telling stories about his wife who had passed away 20 years prior. He spoke in a faraway voice; his eyes had that watery haze of the chronic alcoholic, and he had a suspiciously thorough knowledge of how one acquired illicit pornography in the days before the Internet (he volunteered this information during a particularly baffling class on, I believe, intellectual property law).
A large part of my final grade in that class hinged on a group presentation, so you can imagine my shock when I realized—on the day of the presentation—that 20 percent of my group had consisted of one guy who happened to show up to class on the day of the presentation. Visibly drunk, I might add. As he shakily took the stage and began ad-libbing for 15 minutes on the subject of robots, I could feel my GPA slipping back down to academic probation status.
Now, our presentation was not about robots. Nowhere in the previous two weeks of preparation had anyone broached the subject of robots. Yet here was our surprise group member, mumbling his way through a treatise on the relative merits of Rosie the maid from The Jetsons vs. The Terminator.
And that’s when I looked over and saw my professor, happily polishing his belt buckle and staring several thousand yards beyond the podium where the case was being made for a Terminator-free future. My group got a B.
Maybe it was tenure; maybe he just really liked that belt, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the guy just wasn’t that passionate about teaching.
For the good teachers, the ones I can point to and say without a doubt they made a difference, there are many. I can point to every teacher from my senior year of high school, who moved their testing schedules around when I got kicked out of school for a month for having a BB gun, just so I’d still have a chance to graduate on time. Those were good teachers.
But there’s only been one great teacher, one teacher who laid down the foundation upon which I built my education, and that was Mrs. Sharon Kalinowski, former fourth grade teacher at Dublin Elementary School in White Lake, Michigan.
For starters, fourth graders tend to be really quick to devolve in anarchy, so I have to give her credit for keeping our minds occupied. Part of her strategy was to never let us get bored. If you finished your work early, she made sure there was something you could do other than light trashcan fires or attempt a handstand on your desk. You could color. You could do a puzzle. You could play a game. You could work in a workbook.
Or, you could free write. Whatever it was you felt like.
And if you typed it out on one of those fancy new word processors, Mrs. Kalinowski would bind it for you, and a few days later you’d have a damn-near professional manuscript of your masterpiece. I wrote dozens of books over the course of one school year—adventure stories, mysteries, a semi-fictional account of a family trip to California gone horribly wrong, blatant copyright theft in the form of “Indiana Jones vs. The Ice Monster” (actual dialogue: “You know that legend of the Ice Monster?” “Yeah.” “Well it’s true.” “Let’s go.”).
Mrs. Kalinowski was the first person I can remember encouraging me to write. I can still picture every detail of that classroom: the brick walls currently green but concealing a rainbow of paint where it was peeling, windows gazing out onto the weedy fields of the kickball diamond, rows of the last few school desks to be made out of actual wood… and I can remember the cracking sound those books made when you opened them for the first time, the subtle grain of the thicker stock on those covers.
I still remember them, because I still have them. Every one of them. Even Indiana Jones vs. The Ice Monster, Lucasfilms’ lawyers be damned.
I keep them because they remind me of that classroom, and of the magnificent teacher who nurtured a love of writing that now puts a roof over my head.
I am who I am because of these words. And I have Mrs. K to thank for that.
OPINION 2: COURTNEY HAMPSON
Long before school shootings or any mass shootings were a thing, according to a SunSentinal report, “When 14-year-old Michael Arnone opened the door to room 274 on April 18, 1990, he was late for Paula Niven’s first period history class at Brick Township High School in New Jersey. Arnone carried with him a guitar case and an oversized gym bag. In his case and bag were the provisions Arnone believed he might need for his school day: a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, a bag of chips, a pack of cigarettes, a loaded shotgun, and 18 rounds of ammunition. Arnone announced to his teacher and classmates that he didn’t want to go school anymore, and with that, he held up his gun and commandeered the classroom.”
It was September 14, 1991 and the first time I was called down to the principal’s office. I was a senior in high school, and until that point I was basically an angel. In the classroom, that is. At home, I was so mouthy that my father took my bedroom door off the hinges, for slamming it one too many times while exclaiming, “I hate you,” in an act of defiance.
I wasn’t mouthy in school though, primarily because my mom was a teacher, and most of my teachers knew her. The first day of school usually went something like this:
Teacher: “Courtney Hampson?”
Teacher: “Are you Eileen Hampson’s daughter?”
And so it went, for a dozen years. Thus it only makes sense that the reason I was called down to the principal’s office was actually a teacher’s fault—Mrs. Paula Niven. The same teacher who, 18 months before, stood in front of her classroom as Michael Arnone pulled a loaded shotgun from his gym bag. That situation ended peacefully. No one was hurt. Our vice principal came into the room and tackled Arnone to the floor.
But, room 274 was never really the same. Because, you knew.
Senior year, I took Mrs. Niven’s politics and economics course, and within the first couple of weeks of school, she quickly launched into the ways of local politics and encouraged us to attend a town council and a board of education meeting to observe the “joys” of said politics. She also challenged us to think about issues that bothered us. Then she convinced us to act.
And I did, because you know what really ticked me off? For four years, I played varsity field hockey, and after every varsity game we would have to take off our dirty, sweaty kilts and give them to the junior varsity players to wear for their games. There was zero budget for girls’ field hockey, so we shared uniforms. Similarly, our field was a hand-me-down too. Half of our field was the boys’ baseball infield, so it was dirt. Field hockey is supposed to be played on a grass field, not hard, dry dirt. As you can imagine, launching a 5.5-ounce plastic sphere of pain off of hard dirt was a very different sport than intended.
Naturally I had a few thoughts about the above. The football team’s grass field sat empty, yet well-maintained, save for eight Friday evenings/Saturday afternoons a year. I thought, since the field was sitting empty on weekday afternoons, wouldn’t it make sense for the field hockey team to be able to use it? And, then I started to wonder why it seemed that girls’ sports got the short end of the stick. Literally, we had to purchase our field hockey sticks on our own. And, you know what? When I played soccer, we also had to share uniforms between games. We didn’t even have a field. We had to get on a bus and go to a recreation field for each practice and game. So, unless Brick Township believed that women were less important than men, wouldn’t the leaders of our community want to fix this disparity?
These were questions I and my fellow athlete (and pot stirrer) prepared and presented to the Brick Township Board of Education, a committee upon which the head coach of the football team sat. Coach Warren Wolf is the winningest football coach in New Jersey. His career began in 1958, and being the beloved sports figure that he was, he also dabbled in politics.
He wasn’t impressed by my line of questions nor my suggestion that girls’ sports teams be held to the same standard as the boys’ teams. Nor did he find my suggestion that his serving on the board (and the town council) might be a conflict of interest.
Oh, you can read all about it. I was in the local paper: “Cries of sex discrimination arose at last night’s board of education meeting.” But news of my big mouth and inappropriate line of questioning hit the phone lines long before the morning paper was printed. Before the morning announcements even got started, I was in the principal’s office, as was my mom (um, hello). I was being questioned and admonished for not “following the proper chain of command.” Um, isn’t that the point of a protest? You go right to the top? And, I am pretty sure the chain (er, coach/board member/council member Wolf) was aware of the situation.
I sat there and took it. I am certain I had a smirk on my face. The best part was that my mom wasn’t mad. Dare I say she was proud. She still had that newspaper clipping in 2005 when she packed her house in Brick and moved to Bluffton.
Sure, I can tell you the difference between the three branches of the federal government; I can talk to you about trickle-down economics. But what I learned from Mrs. Niven was far more valuable than anything in our textbooks: Don’t back down. Fight for what you believe. And never be afraid to say what you think.
As you may have noticed, I haven’t shut up since.