David Bruce: Education Anecdotes


Portrait of Countee Cullen in Central Park. June 20, 1941. (Public domain, via Wiki Commons)

Countee Cullen took his poetry seriously — and his teaching. In Paris, he once met a student to whom he had given a failing grade in French. The student thanked him for the failing grade because after he had received it, he had studied French seriously and the French government had hired him as a translator.

Bill Russell’s grandfather had a lot of pride. He grew up in the Deep South in the pre-Civil Rights days, and people didn’t care whether black kids went to school or not. In fact, his area didn’t even have a school for black kids; therefore, Mr. Russell’s grandfather decided that he would build a school for black kids. He paid in advance for the lumber at a mill, and then he drove a wagon out to the store to pick up the lumber. Unfortunately, the white man who owned the lumber mill didn’t want to hand over the lumber. He told Mr. Russell’s grandfather, “Negro kids don’t need no school. They don’t need to read to pick cotton.” Mr. Russell’s grandfather called everybody “Sir,” and he said, “Okay, Sir. You can give me my money back.” The man didn’t want to do that, and he said, “Hell, there ain’t no agreement with a Negro that a white man’s got to respect.” Mr. Russell’s grandfather replied, “Well, Sir. Then you got three options. You can give me my lumber. You can give me my money. Or I can kill you.” He got the lumber, he built the school for black kids, and he raised the teacher’s first year’s salary. As a Boston Celtic, Bill played 13 seasons, and he and the Celtics won 11 championships.

While still in school, Elvis Presley was occasionally bullied, although he did have friends. When he was in the 8th grade while living in Tupelo, Mississippi, some bullies cut the strings of his guitar. However, his friends pooled their money and bought him new guitar strings. He and his family moved to Tennessee, where he attended Humes High School. He wore his hair long, which was unusual for males at the time, and when he tried out for the football team, some conforming bullies ganged up on him in the locker room, held him down, and were going to cut his hair. He was rescued by football star Red West, who became a lifelong friend. (A few days later, the football coach kicked Elvis off the team because Elvis declined to cut his hair.)

When major-league pitcher Christy Mathewson was a kid, he used to play a game he called “hailey over,” in which he would throw a baseball over the roof of a barn to another kid. Once, he threw the baseball too strongly and broke a neighbor’s window. When he was a boy as well as when he was a man, he had good character, so he paid the neighbor the money it cost to fix the window. His mother said, “It took Christy a long time to save the dollar the broken window cost, but it taught him a sense of responsibility.”

When guitarist Felix White of the Maccabees was attending school, he wasn’t allowed to do much in music: “I was told I couldn’t sing or do anything. So I had to play xylophone. Just the one note, again and again. My favorite note? Whichever note they gave me. I was just happy to be involved.” The school invited him back. Mr. White said, “They said, ‘We’d like you to do a speech about how much the school taught you.’” He joked, “I’m going to go back and smash the xylophone.”

While attending law school in Tuscaloosa, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, ran into a professor who attempted to get the female law students to describe the lurid details of such crimes as rapes. The female students did not put up with this. One female student who declined to be manipulated into describing lurid details told him, “Look, you know about the male anatomy — why don’t you just tell us?” The students in class applauded her.

When George Balanchine choreographed, he sometimes did more than create a beautiful dance. Often, he choreographed as a way to teach other people. For example, he knew that Jerome Robbins was a wonderful choreographer, but that his dance training in the classical style was weak, so he choreographed Caracole and put Mr. Robbins in it as a way to train him in the classical style of dancing.

A Mexican piano teacher named Manuel Barajas was strict. The young Plácido Domingo and two young nephews of a family friend named Esperanza Vázquez took lessons at the same time, with their aunts picking them up after the lesson. Whenever Mr. Barajas was displeased by a young pupil’s playing, he would tell the aunts, “Aunts, upstairs!” He would then criticize in their presence whichever pupil had displeased him.

In 1923, George Gershwin studied harmony with Rubin Goldmark; however, once he procrastinated instead of writing a composition that had been assigned to him as homework. Instead of writing something new, he used a composition that he had written years earlier. Mr. Goldmark was pleased with the composition and told Mr. Gershwin, “It’s plainly to be seen that you have already learned a great deal of harmony from me.”

President Woodrow Wilson’s golf game was interrupted once at the Brannockburn golf course when someone grabbed his caddy by the ear and started to take him away. It turned out that the caddy was a hooky-playing schoolboy named Al Houghton and the man pulling the caddy off the course was his teacher. President Wilson convinced the teacher to allow young Al to finish the round and then return to school.

Phyllis Diller was an amateur comedian before she became a professional comedian. At college, she amused her fellow female dorm mates by walking the halls with a rose in her mouth, a belt around her waist, curlers on her head, and nothing else. She also used to memorize jokes before going on dates. Later, as a homemaker before she became a professional comedian, she entertained other homemakers at the Laundromat.

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” — Mark Twain.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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