Tuesday is National Teacher Day, and people are being asked to salute a teacher who made a difference in their lives.
We’ve got teachers in my family – my wife, our daughter-in-law, a sister, a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and his wife. I’m proud of all of them.
But the teacher I am thanking today is Irma Rhodes, who found me underperforming in high school and turned me around. She opened a world for me, after I had washed out of honors classes at Jamaica High in Queens.
I honor the teacher who did what teachers do – she made English exciting, or fun, or at least tolerable. She was, as I discovered, an educated woman with intellectual and literary interests, and she managed to transmit a bit of her enthusiasm to her class of juniors.
Early in the fall semester, Mrs. Rhodes assigned us to write a book report, any author, any subject. As the son of two journalists, I chose Stranger Come Home by William L. Shirer, a novel by a well-known journalist.
The book was probably lying around the house; my mother probably put it in my hand. (By that time she was legitimately worried that I would remain a slacker.) I did some minimal research and deduced that the plot pretty much matched the career of Shirer – a correspondent in Europe who had been pursued by the red-baiters when he returned stateside after World War Two.
Mrs. Rhodes read the report and asked me to me read parts out loud in class. She was so pleasant that she never transmitted the feeling she was turning me into a teacher’s pet. She just said, this is a book report, and people in the class seemed happy for me. She created a positive mood among the students, which is not easy to do.
She followed it up, talked to me after class, inviting me to work on the school yearbook, promoting me when openings came up. She held salons in her home for the yearbook staff – a bit of work and planning, plus piano playing, literary talk, refreshments. She organized theater outings to Manhattan on weekends – something at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the east side, Anastasia on Broadway.
Oh, yes, and I got a date for the senior prom, much to my shock. A girl, a year older than me, liked my essays when Mrs. Rhodes had me read out loud. (Jean, our class president-for-life, had to virtually order me to ask the girl out.) As Richard Price wrote in a classic essay in 1981, one of his earliest lessons was that being The Writer was a neat way to meet girls.
Mrs. Rhodes and I kept in touch long after I was actually accepted by Hofstra and started working for newspapers. I brought my wife to her home. I mourned when she passed much too soon and I mourned when one of her daughters also passed way too young.
I don’t mind saying I think Mrs. Rhodes was proud of me, the way my wife is proud of the smart young man she taught in her humanities group in the challenging late ‘60’s, who is now a national byline.
I see that same pride in our daughter-in-law who teaches English as a Second Language. I cannot describe how proud I am to see this dedicated young woman going to work every day with the new ethnic groups of my home borough of Queens.
Teachers do this. The vast majority of them care. It makes me crazy to hear taxpayers complain about the alleged high salaries and perks of teachers. “(They get the whole summer off.”) They didn’t see my wife doing lesson plans on weekends, or my sister's daughter using part of her modest salary to buy school supplies for the underprivileged children of her southern town.
About a decade ago, I got to reconnect with my old high school – the same rooms, the same hopeful faces as my contemporaries in the ‘50’s, in some honors classes I visited. I could feel Mrs. Rhodes (and Mrs. Kirchman and Mrs. Gollobin and all the rest) still in that building.
Yet the city of New York saw fit to cook the books so Jamaica High would look like a statistical failure. They are keeping the glorious landmark building open and are tossing out the institution in favor of the new fad of boutique schools.
The teachers of today remind me of the teachers who taught us back in the ‘50’s. I thank them all, and most of all I thank Irma Rhodes.
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I should add: memories of favorite teachers are welcome here, under Comments. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.