Over the weekend, I watched the movie “Whiplash.” I’ve been jonesing to see it especially since the Oscars, but really, even before that. I like J.K. Simmons, especially from his work on “The Closer,” and I’m becoming a huge Miles Teller fan. From his role in the updated “Footloose” to “Divergent” and what was a crushing performance in “The Spectacular Now,” my fandom for him is growing with my fandom for Shailene Woodley, and just gaining momentum with every project I see.
I really loved this movie. It’s a harsh movie to watch, but I think that’s clear enough from the promotions they did. You’re going to watch this kid be pushed unacceptably by a teacher— I don’t know anyone who has illusions about that, going in. I thought it was really well done, and it made me think about the teachers who pushed me. Looking back, I had a ton of really great teachers, but the ones who stand out were the ones who pushed me to be more than I knew I could be. Teachers who stopped well short of abuse, but who frustrated me to tears, who made me feel not very good at what I had believed myself to be very good at, but who forced me, usually against my will, to level up.
I had a couple of teachers in high school, like this. For some background, I was always a standout in reading, and later, English classes. I don’t know if it’s native ability or because my brothers were in high school when I was in preschool and I desperately tried to relate to them on their level, but I do remember my middle brother making flash cards to help me with math and phonics and reading me the Dr. Doolittle books well before I ever got to school/preschool. My youngest brother told my mom I was reading at two, when he noticed me reading aloud my nursery rhymes book. He quizzed me on it, having me read them out of order, and was persuaded that I was reading at that age. She swore I had just memorized them all, which I think is still pretty impressive, at 2. I don’t really remember a time before I could read, and my clear memories start with my third birthday party. In first grade, I read the stories at story-hour for the class, and worked independently in a self-paced program if the topic was math or reading. That year, my eldest brother gave me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy of books for my birthday. I started winning prizes for writing in first or second grade.
So I was pretty insufferable by middle school. In high school, I was fine until I hit AP American History, my sophomore year, where my teacher quickly tired of my rambling, disorganized writing and started drilling me on the outline, thesis statement, and five-paragraph essay. I felt very persecuted, but that disciplined approach to writing was something I’m not sure I would have absorbed another way, and God knows I hadn’t been taught it to that point. Then, junior year, I went into an AP English class. I quickly started collecting Cs, much to my disbelief. I kid you not, I went to the teacher and said to her “I don’t think you understand— I’m an A student in this subject.”
She arched an eyebrow and said “not in my class, you’re not.” We spent the entire first quarter going round and round. She was big on peer grading, so I’d go to her after I graded a peer assignment and say “my assignment, which you’re calling a C, was better than this assignment that you’re calling A work, and here’s why.” And she’d say “I’m not grading you against the other people in the class, I’m grading you against what you’re capable of. And I don’t think you’re working very hard.”
She was known among students for being unreasonable, and I took her statement to mean that she hated me and that, no matter what I did, I wouldn’t succeed in her class. Which was bad luck for me, because I had her for my best subject junior and senior years, unless I opted out of AP English classes. The college implications were everywhere— continuing to pull the bad grades in my best subject was tanking my GPA, but the basic English class was too basic for me, and a C in AP is still almost as good as a B in a regular class… so I toughed it out. I worked like a dog, that first quarter, but I stopped fighting with her. Our first big assignment was due just before Christmas— a portfolio of five analytical essays on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, on prescribed topics. I slaved over it, and turned it in, and waited for my C.
When she handed it back, it just said “See me” at the top. My stomach dropped. I didn’t know much about Dorothy Parker back then, but if I did, her line “What fresh hell is this?” would have pretty aptly described my mindset. I stayed after, but I think she made me come back at the end of the day. When I did, I think I was shaking. She said “What source material did you use for this?” My heart stopped. We were strictly forbidden from using critical reference material for our portfolio essays, and I hadn’t used any. I told her that, and she pushed me, saying that she was certain that I’d used reference material to write it— that it wasn’t in my voice. She reminded me, though I didn’t need it, that I could be expelled if she found out that I’d plagiarized. I swore, at the point of tears, that I hadn’t— I’d just worked really hard on it. She said she needed to think about it. And then I waited to be expelled for something I hadn’t done.
When she made her decision, whether it was days or weeks later (I forget how long I walked around feeling sick), she returned my portfolio to me. At the top, it had an A, and a note that said “I believe you.”
My relief was immense. I went on to finish that class and the following year’s strong. I did well on the two AP English exams I took under her tutelage. She became one of my favorite teachers of all time, because she brought me to a new level. Most of my academic life, my areas of high achievement were treated like they didn’t need attention, from teachers. I look back at those teachers as people who pursued policies of benign neglect. Some of them were overworked teachers with classes at widely variable levels— it’s not irrational to mostly ignore the ones who are performing at or above grade-level. But that she wanted me to push my boundaries— that she demanded that she teach me, even if I were effectively proficient? I can’t tell you what that meant to me, except to say that when she died, just after I finished college, I felt like I owed it to her to one day take her place and teach the way she taught.
I had some great teachers in college, but the next one who really brought me to my knees was in grad school. I was in a guided independent study program, and I’d chosen him to advise me on a class. I don’t remember the subject matter, but I remember him ripping apart one of my papers. I called him to discuss it and remember bursting into tears on the call. We got through that class and I was thrilled to be rid of him, but when I had to pick a thesis adviser, I started to think of him, again. Of the professors I’d worked with, during my time, he was the one who made me really work for it. There was a lot that recommended cutting myself a break— by that time, we knew that my father was terminally ill, and there was a lot of disruption in my family. My company was going through a lot of changes, and because I was working full-time while I went to school full time, that put me in a pretty stressful situation. What I didn’t know, then, was that my brother would end up living with me and then we’d end up getting a place together, and I’d move twice in a year, be the maid of honor in my niece’s wedding, and see my mother hospitalized and my father put into hospice, while writing and revising my thesis. But when I thought about why I was in grad school, it wasn’t because I needed the degree, professionally speaking. And it wasn’t because I was looking for something easy. I made the decision to go to grad school to see what I was made of. And the person who had most shown me that was the professor who pushed me past the point of tears.
So I asked him to be my thesis adviser. He promptly talked me out of every idea I had for my thesis and forced me to write it on what my family was going through. And then he made me revise it over and over such that I didn’t graduate on time, until I wrote with honesty and immediacy about the pain and lessons we were going through. It was horrific. But the thing you don’t want to do, with the biggest presentation of your academic life, is phone it in. And I didn’t. I bled on the page. It took everything I had and more. And it made me better. Which was worth the price of admission. Once he approved it, there was no chance that anyone else would be harder on it.
To be clear, I don’t put every teacher with whom I ever had a difficult relationship in this same category. I had a public speaking teacher who did me a grave injustice on a group project. I’m not a violent person, and when she gave me a zero for a project on which my group got an A because of a scheduling error that she had made, even though I had been the group leader, it was the first time I’ve ever clearly imagined killing someone in cold blood. It scared the crap out of me. I think she was just a bad teacher.
In college, I had a professor who assigned me a woman-centric project in a Civil War class (I was one of two females in the class), and then let the males in the class ridicule me for taking the position he had assigned to me. When I talked to him afterward about his classroom management of that situation, he said he’d seen nothing that warranted intervention. As a result, I felt silenced, and stopped speaking up in class (and it takes a lot to shut me up in class, especially a class with subject matter that interests me as much as that one did). And he started dropping my grade, because of a class participation requirement. I worked it out and never took a class from him again, which was a challenge, given that it was my minor and he was one of two full-time professors in the department.
So there’s a difference between teachers who push you and teachers who are jerks without redeeming qualities. It can be a fine line, and I think “Whiplash” explores it well— you can argue that the J.K. Simmons character falls on either side of it, depending on where you are in the movie. But I think the movie is clear in the conclusion it reaches.
As usual, I have been ridiculously blessed in this area, to have several stories I can tell on this. My wish for every high-achieving student is to have a teacher who grades them not against what others are doing, but against their own potential. It takes time and quite a bit of effort to understand what a student’s potential can be. And high-achieving or not, I hope that somewhere in an academic life, every student has a teacher who, maddening as it is while it’s happening, cares enough about them to help them level up, at least once.