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My Most Memorable Teachers

The Wizard Musician, The Perv, and All Those In-between

By Eryn MillikenPublished 6 months ago 18 min read
My Most Memorable Teachers
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

I recently read an article 20 Teachers Recall Their Most Memorable Encounter With A Student’s Parents and it got me thinking back to all the teachers I’ve had over the years (with a Master’s Degree, I’ve had a few). Some were just kind of there, and you can sometimes recall vague memories of them or their class, and then you just go on with your life. Others, for better or worse, leave a life-long impression and help mold the adult you become.

There aren’t many who fall into the in-between, though. Have you ever noticed that?

I was a psychology major in college but had to take a math class. While I was fairly decent at math, it wasn’t my major and most of my options looked pretty intimidating, so I picked one that didn’t scare me like the others. This teacher truly fits the “in-between” for me. I can’t remember his name, I only remember that he looked kind of like a surfer who couldn’t compete anymore - an interesting fact since we were in New Hampshire. His class was surprisingly easy (the only A I got in college. I went to a very challenging undergraduate school), but the memories I have are of him teaching us how to tie knots on the first day of class. It was interesting, but confusing for a college-level math course. Still, it keeps him from falling into the completely forgotten, and for that, I give him credit. I’m not sure I have one other teacher who falls into The In-Between, so he does stand out for that; the rest are either largely forgotten, or very memorable.

I want to end on a high note, so I’ll talk about the best teachers last.

The Bad Impressions

I think it’s important to note that I grew up in a nice, middle-class, New England town where education was important. It helps set the stage for my experiences and expectations. My public high school competed with the private schools academically (they kicked our butts athletically), and, despite a good agricultural program, most of us were expected to go to college, and did so. I took two of the three AP classes my school offered, and was an honors to high honors student every term. I didn’t get in trouble, didn’t sneak out of the house, or run with the wrong crowd. Heck, my high school barely even had a “wrong crowd” when I was a student. I went to a wonderful, private, liberal arts college (thank you scholarships!), and received a great education there as well, though it was super difficult compared to high school, but more on that later.

Why bring all that up? Because even a kid who gets really good grades and doesn’t get in trouble still can’t get along with every teacher that comes along in life.

The Not-Too-Bads

I got lucky in college and didn’t have any truly terrible professors, but there were a couple that still make me shake my head. Thanks to those AP credits I mentioned, when I had to write a research thesis senior year (yes, for undergrad - I said it was a challenging school!), I was able to take one less class. But, due to a newer teacher who explained herself so poorly in class, I didn’t have a great grasp on one of my favorite subjects: abnormal psych. She wasn’t a bad teacher like the ones below, but she certainly wasn’t good enough to even make The In-Between. Thankfully, I was able to audit the class with one of my favorite teachers of all time.

The other professor who wasn’t so great wasn’t even one I took a class with throughout my four years as a student. It was quite intentional after our only real exchange. About a month into freshman year, I was working at my work-study job in the psych lab, where I took care of the lab rats. One of them bit my finger and I was bleeding pretty badly. Still, I managed to put him back in his cage before leaving the lab, having to go through—and close—several doors in the process. It was after hours, and this professor happened to be the only one still in her office, so I went to her, in shock, and asked for help. Instead, she screamed so loudly other students came running to see what was wrong, jumped on her chair, and told me to get out of her office. She thought I’d brought the rat out with me. A senior girl, whose name I didn’t even know, took me to Health Services and made sure I was okay. I ended up having to go to the ER, was put on heavy antibiotics (it was a clean lab rat, no diseases), had to get x-rays to make sure he didn’t break a tooth on my knuckle, and had to have my hand wrapped up for close to a month. My boss was wonderful and left home in the middle of dinner to come keep me company and drive me back to campus. But, for some reason, the other professor and I never seemed to see eye-to-eye after that.

The Clay Smasher

When I was five, we moved to a new town, and I started kindergarten. My preschool focused on socialization over academics and, according to my parents, I loved it there. But the new teacher went so far as to tell my parents I was a bad student and would never amount to much because, at that tender age, I couldn’t already recite everything she expected of me. I hated school by the end of kindergarten and did NOT want to return for first grade. I don’t remember much about the former, but I remember the latter very clearly. To this day, I don’t understand how people who teach such young kids can be so mean. They’re dealing with, for example’s sake, a fresh ball of clay, and instead of warming it up and making it soft for the next artist (teacher) to work with, they smash it with a hammer and toss it aside like it’s useless. Fortunately for me, my first-grade teacher solidly belongs in the other section of this article.

By Earl Wilcox on Unsplash

The Bully

Years later, in fifth grade, I had a teacher I shared a birthday with, and thought that was amazing. Until she turned out to be one of my worst teachers. She was cruel, discouraging, and did not seem to like the fact that my mom worked in the same school. Why that made a difference about me, I still have no idea to this day. Every time she wanted us to do a research project, she made me go through multiple subject choices before she would agree to one, but did not do this with other students.

I clearly remember two things. One, she told me I “knew too much about cats” to pick them for a research project because I had one as a pet. So I picked snakes because a family friend had one and I thought it was cool. When we brought the snake in for my presentation, she made me present my research to multiple classes - the only kid to have to do so. And, two, when she assigned pen pals that year (why a science teacher was giving out pen pals I don’t know), she intentionally gave me the girl who was in the hospital and the least likely to write a reply. I don’t remember her exact words, but she made sure I knew it. The girl DID write back, and she was great, so it worked out in the end. And, when my teacher tried to prove how brave she was by putting her hand in the snake’s aquarium while he was shedding, despite our warnings not to, he bit her.

We still talked about that at graduation.

The Perv

It’s been more than 20 years since I was a freshman in high school and the memories of this guy still make me cringe. He takes the cake for the worst teacher I’ve ever had.

I remember when teacher lists came out before school started, older friends asked who my Earth Science teacher was, and when I told them, they told me to be careful around him. He was beyond sketchy, yet “clever” enough to make it so the administration couldn’t do anything about him. I listened, but truly had no idea what was coming.

At 15, I was curvy and outgoing. He took notice right away, and immediately my skin began to crawl in that way you can’t explain, but every woman knows. He was a loud, rotund, older man whose wife was an English teacher in the school. She was terrible in her own way, but this guy was downright slimy. He would openly stare at the girls and comment on our outfits.

When my boyfriend gave me his class ring, I put it on a necklace and he commented the first day I wore it. And again, the first time I forgot to put it on, he asked, “Is there trouble in paradise?” while taking my homework, staring at my chest while I had to stand next to him seated on a stool. More than once he made comments to me in the hallway between classes, to the point my boyfriend would have me walk on his side away from the teacher so he was between us. Boys in the class tried to switch seats with me so I wasn’t on the outside aisle, and he made us switch back, saying he assigned the seats. All the boys in our class - an honors class - planned to wear short dresses or skirts to our final exam to make a point. However, he found out and said if they did he would fail every single one of them. One time I lost a sheet we needed for class, and when I stopped by his room to ask for a new one, he asked what flavor I wanted, then laughed when I balked.

After freshman year, I once walked into his class with a friend to ask to borrow something for a club and he actually said, “To who do I owe this pleasure?” When we told him what we needed, he gave it to us with, “Tell him if they aren’t back on time, it doesn’t matter how many pretty girls he sends me.” That teacher had tried to talk us out of going to ask.

So many people tried to turn him in, and nothing ever came of it. We were told we were making it up or blowing it out of proportion. Other teachers knew and couldn’t stop him. And, again, this was at a really good school. We all swore we’d throw a party the day the man retired, and it spread like wildfire when he finally did.

By OSPAN ALI on Unsplash

Before I make myself more nauseous thinking about him, let’s move on to the other side of this coin, shall we?

The Amazing Ones

I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had more wonderful teachers than terrible ones. My 4th-grade teacher was really encouraging and never got mad if we fell asleep on the carpet squares during reading time. My 7th-grade English teacher nurtured my interest in writing by letting me borrow her fountain pen sometimes for in-class writing assignments. My AP history teacher loved oatmeal raisin cookies and I still brought him some even after I graduated. The most sought-after letter of recommendation writing teacher in high school offered to write me a letter because his alma mater was my first choice for college (it’s where I went, too!).

But four teachers stand out above the rest. I literally would not be the person I am today if not for them.

The Cat Lady

Remember how I said my kindergarten teacher was terrible? Well, this is the woman who soothed that trauma.

My mom and I went to the library a few days before school began for first grade. They were doing a program to dress up as your favorite book character and I was dressed as a cat, drawn on whiskers and all. Nearby was the school I’d be going to (they only did grades 1-3 there), so she brought me over, trying to make me less nervous. A nice woman approached us and made small talk, asking if she could answer any questions, etc. It turned out she was my new teacher. She and my mom had a quiet conversation about how nervous I was after having a bad experience the previous year. I don’t remember a lot of the details, but she was the kindest woman. She turned around my hatred of school and made me love it again.

I’m dating myself here, but she was my teacher when The Challenger exploded. We were watching in class like everyone else. All the other kids went on with their day, but I was really upset. When she talked to me about it, I told her that I was glad she wasn’t the teacher who had gone up and it had a big impact on her. Enough so that she told my mom about it the next time they talked.

When I was a teen, she won Teacher of the Year and I went to her reception. She told everyone standing with us about the day she met me dressed up as The Curious Little Kitten.

The Science Man

Have you ever had a high school teacher you loved so much that you took an advanced class just to have them again? I did.

Right across the hall from The Perv was the biology teacher, and that was our sophomore-year science class. You would be hard-pressed to find a bigger change between two people. This man was funny, smart, loved what he taught, and respected us as long as we respected him, too. It was really easy to learn from him because he made it interesting and exciting. When we finished lessons early, he would sometimes play comedy skits while we all talked and he checked in with us about how we were doing, both in and out of his classroom. When it came to dissections, he knew we were uncomfortable but lessened the stress by talking to us and cracking jokes before bringing us back on topic again.

Once, I wore a hat to school. I didn’t wear things like baseball hats, no. I wore a beret that day. One rule he had was no hats in class. Even though I loved hats, I didn’t wear them often, and I forgot to take it off. He never said a word, but down the road gave me a hard time in a lighthearted manner and I never forgot again. Never once did he make anyone feel bad that I saw.

So, when AP Biology was an option my senior year, I took it, excited to have him as a teacher again. The class was hard, but I considered it worth it. I even asked him for a letter of recommendation for college and he wrote one of the best ones I’ve ever read. For years I would go to homecoming and sit in on his class just to catch up with him.

The Professor

My dad was out of the country for work for the majority of my senior year of high school. A brilliant friend of the family stepped in to help me wade through the plethora of mail coming in from colleges. I was so overwhelmed I welcomed the help and passed along the single most helpful idea he had to my stepdaughter when she was looking at colleges:

If you know what you want to major in, write a letter to the chair of that department.

What you get back will tell you so much about both the department and the school. I wrote to six schools. Only a few even bothered to reply. All but one of those only sent me more of the paraphernalia I was already being inundated with from their admissions offices: pamphlets, postcards, and all that. ONE professor bothered to fully write me a response. And he not only sent me a handwritten note, but printed out pages, and sent me information I couldn’t find on the website. The manilla envelope I got back was pushing an inch thick, and the papers were not folded. I was beyond impressed.

Then I had him in class.

He was engaging and had real-world experience since he had an office off-campus where he saw patients. He was upfront about his bad handwriting and told us to never force our children to be right-handed. If he was feeling especially squirrely, he would kick his shoes off under the teacher's desk and teach in his socks.

When we would go to his office to ask questions or just to say hi, he never made us feel like we were wasting his time or had somewhere more important to be. When I sprained my knee, he noticed I was snacking constantly in class (due to the stomach pain I was having) and called me to his office to ask if I was okay. He had been on the same anti-inflammatory after knee surgery and pointed out I should talk to my doctor about a different medication that would be gentler. He was right. They changed my meds, and I stopped needing to eat all day. I lent him a book I found fascinating, and we had a full conversation about it after he finished reading it. Last I knew, he still had it, too.

Even now we’re friends on Facebook, and most of his “friends” are former psychology students and cross-country runners he coached. He’s as fascinating as ever and just as wonderful of a man who changed a lot of people’s lives and possibly doesn’t even know how much.

By Green Chameleon on Unsplash

The Wizard Musician

The last teacher I want to talk about is by no means the least. In fact, he might be the most influential teacher I’ve ever had. Ironic, since if you asked me in 6th grade, I probably would have put him on the list of bad teachers.

In the 5th grade, we started learning to play an instrument. Our teacher was mostly soft-spoken and wanted me to take private flute lessons because I showed some potential. Then he made a huge mistake. He asked me why I started playing the flute and I pointed out that I’d grown up listening to Jethro Tull, and looked up to Ian Anderson. He scoffed and told me he was a sham and not a real flute player. I went home LIVID and quit band class. He begged my mother to force me to go back, but she refused. I didn’t go back until the next year when we had a different teacher.

To a bunch of small middle school students, this man was terrifying. He was big and loud, with dark hair, and gestured wildly when he was talking. He was also a very good teacher, but it was difficult to realize it in the moment.

I didn’t see him again until the end of the 8th grade when I was auditioning for the high school’s madrigal singing group. They were planning a trip to England, and he was the director, so I started spending a lot of time with him and the other students involved and realized he was nothing like I remembered. Yes, he was loud. Yes, he flung his hands around when he got worked up about things.

But he was also one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. He would dress up as a wizard for our madrigal dinners with this elaborate cloak and pointy hat. When we went to England, he watched over us like a mother hen and traded pictures with us all when we got home again (this was before social media). When I wanted to leave band again (because of the same teacher as the first time), he talked me into sticking it out until I ended up with a class conflict and had to quit. He picked music that was difficult and would push us because he knew we were good enough to do it right, but made sure we were the ones pushing each other to be better. He won high school music teacher of the year the year I graduated.

When my dad was away, he became like a surrogate father figure. I dated a guy I’d met at the regionals chorus exhibition. My teacher didn’t like him but didn’t say anything until I walked in one day, determined to break up with him. When he asked why I was so mad, I told him what I planned to do and he threw his hands up in the air and yelled, “FINALLY!” making the entire class laugh, and me less upset.

For years after graduating, I would go back just to see him. We would catch up and talk about life, and he would grumble about how he was glad he had sons because girls were so difficult, all with a twinkle in his eye that betrayed just how much he didn’t mean it.

He passed away just over a year ago at the age of 82, and my heart is still broken.

Here’s to you, Mr. P, for being the best teacher I ever had. I hope everyone gets to have someone like you in their lives, and every teacher should strive to have their students love them as much as we all loved you.

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