David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

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Salvador Dali with Babou, the ocelot and cane. (Public domain, via Wiki Commons)

Spanish artist Salvador Dalí attended Madrid’s San Fernando Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a good student. Often, he worked so long and so hard on his art that by the time he showed up at the student dining hall everyone else had eaten and the dining hall had closed. His teachers knew that he was exceptional. To be admitted to the school, he was supposed to turn in a drawing of a certain size to be evaluated. His drawing was the wrong size, but the evaluators knew that his work was exceptional and so they admitted him anyway. Salvador, though young, knew more than his teachers in many ways. He was interested in technique, but his teachers thought that the most important thing in art was emotion. Most of the students agreed with the teachers. One exception to bad teachers was José Carbonero, one of whose students had been Pablo Picasso, but the students did not respect Mr. Carbonero. This shocked Salvador. “The pupils laughed at him,” Salvador later wrote. They laughed “at his coat, the black pearl stickpin he wore in his tie, and his white gloves. His skill was unmatched, but no sooner did he turn his back than the little upstarts erased his corrections, which in fact reflected the gifts of a true master. I preferred to keep apart from that bunch of loafers and idiots, and go on with my Cubist experiments.” Salvador read art journals and studied contemporary artists whom the teachers knew nothing about. His teachers did not know anything about Cubism! When he had completed his course of study and was supposed to take a final oral exam to get his degree, Salvador showed his contempt for his teachers. The students were supposed to talk intelligently on a topic drawn at random. Salvador was supposed to speak about the Renaissance artist Raphael, whom he had studied in detail, but Salvador did not talk about him. Instead, he told the jury of professors, “Gentlemen, with all due respect it is impossible for me to talk about this in front of these three professors because I know much more about Raphael than all of you put together.” Perhaps needless to say, Salvador was not awarded a degree.

Jesse Jackson was greatly influenced by his sixth-grade teacher, Sara Shelton, who shocked him and her other students on the first day of class when she wrote a number of hard words on the chalkboard. Someone in the class told her, “Uh, Mizz Shelton? Those are eighth-grade words. We only in the sixth grade here.” She replied, “I know what grade you are. I work here. I know what grade I’m teaching. And you’ll learn every one of these words, and a lot more like ’em ’fore this year is over. I will not teach down to you. One of you brats just might be mayor or governor or president someday, and I’m gonna make sure you’re ready.” She then turned back to the chalkboard and wrote more hard words.

In 1960, Roy Lichtenstein started teaching at Douglass College (the women’s college of Rutgers University). There he became friends with Rutgers art history teacher Allan Kaprow. In a conversation, Roy explained that he was using the paintings of Paul Cézanne to teach his students color. Allan saw a Double Bubble cartoon, and he told Roy, “You can’t teach color from Cézanne; you can only teach it from something like this.” Allan remembers, “He looked at me with the funniest grin on his face.” Roy said, “Come with me.” He then showed Allan one of his newest works: an abstract painting in which Donald Duck appeared. Soon Roy began to paint big paintings of cartoons, and soon he began to become famous.

The young Warren Buffett was a master at psyching out his classmates in typing class during the days of typewriters when you had to manually move the carriage back to start a new line of writing. Whenever the class had a speed-typing test, young Warren would race through the first line so he could slam back the carriage. He says, “Everybody else would stop at that point, because they were still on the first word when they would hear my ‘ding!’ Then they’d panic, and they’d try to go faster, and they’d screw up. So I had a lot of fun in typing class.”

Flannery O’Connor used to take castor-oil sandwiches to the St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls she attended in Savannah, Georgia. Why? She didn’t want to share her lunch with the other students. Later, she attended the Peabody School in Milledgeville, where she was required to sew a set of clothing for her Home Economics class. On examination day, she brought her pet duckling and the set of clothing she had made to school. The set of clothing consisted of underwear and outerwear — all created to fit the duck.

When Francesca Gallio, age 11, interviewed TV celebrity Simon Cowel, she discovered that he actually considered himself “one of the worst-behaved people in school” when he was a kid. That is, when he got to school. One of his tricks to get out of school was to put a cup of hot tea on his head for 30 seconds or so, and then say, “I’m not feeling very well, Mum. Can you feel my head?” Of course, his head would feel hot, as if he had a fever, and he got to stay home from school.

For a while, when he was a child, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges studied in Switzerland. He was popular, and he studied hard, but he failed a final examination in French, although he passed every other examination. The other students in the class appealed to the headmaster to consider young Jorge’s effort and progress while studying in a language that was not his own. The headmaster listened to the students and allowed Jorge to advance a grade.

Like many conductors, Leopold Stokowski conducted without a score. This led to a misunderstanding, as a woman once said, “Isn’t it a shame that the wonderful Mr. Stokowski can’t read a score? Imagine, how great he would have been if he only knew how!”

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David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Counteecullen

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.

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David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

DamonNaomi

Naomi Yang of Damon and Naomi (with Damon Krukowski) fame learned to play bass basically on her own, after taking a few lessons from a teacher who knew his stuff but did not appreciate what he knew. The teacher gave her one lesson, and then he asked her to bring in some bass lines that she liked so he could teach her how to play them. She brought in the Joy Division song “Atmosphere,” on which Peter Hook played bass, and the teacher told her, “He’s playing a fifth, and then sliding up one octave.” This is a simple move, and the teacher made the mistake of saying, “What a genius, huh?” This horrified Ms. Yang, who says, “That teacher had just handed me a miracle! That was one of the most beautiful and elegant things I’d ever heard, and it was so simple. Peter Hook wasn’t doing something magical that I couldn’t do; he was doing something very simple that I learned in Bass Lesson Number Two.” But because the teacher did not appreciate the beautiful and elegant playing, she also thought, “I don’t need this teacher anymore!” Still, he had taught her something important: “You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play bass. You can play incredibly simple themes, but they can still be melodic and from the heart.”

Hunter S. Thompson worked very hard to become a writer. He wrote lots of stuff on his own, of course, but he also would type pages of material by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway simply to “feel the rhythm” of the way they wrote. This hard work paid off when he wrote his breakthrough book, Hell’s Angels, at age 29. The first part was more scholarly than the second, which was much more “gonzo” — the kind of writing associated with Mr. Thompson, who discovered that he had only four days to write the second part. He simply holed himself up in a room with what he considered the necessities of life — Dexedrine and Wild Turkey — and created the second half of the book. By the way, Mr. Thompson says that he was able to do this not because of the alcohol and the drugs, but because of the 15 years that he had spent learning to write.

Evolution-defender Richard Dawkins attended a wonderful school where his biology instructor was Ioan Thomas, who once asked the students, “What animal feeds on hydra?” He asked one student after another, and none knew the answer. Finally, the students asked him, “Sir, what animal does?” He replied, “’I don’t know. And I don’t think Mr. Coulson [another instructor] does either.” Mr. Dawkins remembers, “He burst into the next room, got Mr. Coulson and dragged him out by the arm, and he didn’t know either! It was a wonderful lesson! I never forgot it and neither did anyone else: it’s OK to not know the answer.”

Children’s author Jane Yolen began reading and writing at an early age — and kept right on going. In the first grade, she read overnight a book that the students were supposed to read for an entire semester, so the teacher moved her up to the second grade, where she wrote the words and music to the class play. The play featured vegetables, and in the big finale they came together and formed a salad. While attending Smith College, she wrote in verse a final exam essay about American intellectual history — and got an A! And on her 22nd birthday, she sold her first real book.

Quite a few graduate students, while brilliant in the laboratory, are not so brilliant when it comes to writing. When Dr. Mark H. Shapiro, aka the Irascible Professor, was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, he knew of someone who had made a block out of wood and had neatly inscribed it with the words “Writer’s Block.” Whenever a graduate student was approaching the time when he or she should begin writing his or her dissertation, a Writer’s Block would appear in the student’s laboratory mailbox.

M.E. Kerr, author of Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, and her parents disagreed about where she should go to college. She wanted to go to the University of Missouri, and her parents wanted her to stay close to home and go to Syracuse University. As it turned out, her grades were so poor that neither school accepted her. She ended up attending Vermont Junior College, which was a good choice for her. She started the school newspaper, and she got good training for being an author by writing most of the newspaper’s articles.

Some people can’t see what is in front of them. A young dancer took a class with master choreographer George Balanchine, but she never listened to him. One day, she started to leave class in a great hurry at the end, and Mr. Balanchine asked her why she was in such a hurry to leave. The young dancer explained that she was going to take another class with a Balanchine expert. This shocked and amused Mr. Balanchine. He told the dancer, “Here I am. It’s me. I’m Balanchine. Why go anywhere else?”

Lynne Reid Banks, author of The Indian in the Cupboard, taught English for nine years in Israel. She once attended a reading conference where she spoke in front of a group of children who had plastic bags filled with reading materials. The children grew restless and started rustling the bags, and to get their attention, she kicked the bag out from underneath a boy. Another teacher wrote her an angry letter protesting her action, but the boy invited Ms. Banks to join his soccer team.

Ballerina Maria Tallchief once watched master choreographer George Balanchine teach a class to 40 girls, most of whom had no talent for dancing. She told him later, “George, isn’t it amazing that there’s only one girl who’s any good?” Mr. Balanchine’s opinion was different from Ms. Tallchief’s: “No, Maria. What’s amazing is that there is one girl who’s good.”

Comedian and TV game-show host Jan Murray always regretted not graduating from high school; therefore, when he was in his 40s, he finally earned his high-school diploma. Afterwards, he joked, “How old can I be? I just graduated from high school!”

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David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Peck

Young people’s author Richard Peck had a tough English teacher named Miss Franklin during his senior year in high school. On the students’ first day of class, she announced, “I can get all of you in this room into the colleges of your choice — or I can keep you out.” When he handed in his first composition in her course, she wrote on it, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find a more interesting topic.” Seventeen-year-old Richard asked her what would be a more interesting topic than himself. She replied, “Almost anything.”

In the 2009-2010 academic year, actor Tony Danza, who has a college degree in education, but not a teaching license, began teaching a sophomore English course at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, PA, as part of an A&E reality series called Teach. Because he does not have a teaching certificate, another teacher is always present in the one course that Mr. Danza teaches, but fortunately the other teacher mostly observes and seldom needs to take over for Mr. Danza. As you may expect, Mr. Danza occasionally makes mistakes. He says that he cried three times his first week of teaching. He once made a mistake when he tried to explain the role of the omniscient narrator, and one of his students corrected him. After that, he says that he was tempted to telephone every teacher that he had ever had and tell them that he had not realized how difficult teaching is. Mr. Danza has also run into non-teaching problems. Once he got down on his hands and knees and washed the floor of his classroom because it was not clean enough for him. Mr. Danza really does teach, guiding his students through such works of literature as Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men. The school district had to decide whether to renew Mr. Danza’s contract partway through the school year. Because his students had made good academic progress, the district did renew his contract. Mr. Danza and the production company benefit the high school and the school district financially, paying it $3,500 for each episode (13 episodes in all) and paying for some expenses, as well as air-conditioning the library and donating money to the school uniform fund and the band and the choir. In addition, it put on “ExtravaDanza,” a song-and-dance benefit that raised $12,000 for the school district.

When he was a child, Walter Dean Myers loved comic books, even smuggling the forbidden reading into his house in the legs of his pants. When he was in the 5th grade, his teacher caught him reading a comic book in class. Disgusted, she handed him a book of Scandinavian fairy tales and said, “If you’re going to sit here and read, you might as well read something worthwhile.” Mr. Myers remembers, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He read that book and other books she handed to him, and he became a reader. He worried that reading might not be well regarded by many of his friends, and often he carried library books inside a brown paper bag so that other children could not see them. His teacher, Mrs. Conway, helped him in other ways. Young Walter had a speech impediment, and she required students to recite a poem out loud in front of the class; however, the poem could be something that the student had written. Walter wrote a poem that used only words that he could pronounce well, and he impressed the other students with his recitation.

Teachers, of course, sometimes run into difficulties, often of a funny nature. 1) One teacher used to help herself remember which child went with each name by writing a short description of a child by his or her name. This led to a problem: A boy saw the description “Looks like Woody Allen” by his name, and he told his parents, who were not happy about the description. 2) A teacher disciplined a child who told him that his name was Daniel Stephens. After she had given a few detentions to “Daniel Stephens,” the real Daniel Stephens came to her and asked why she was punishing him with detentions. 3) A teacher forgot to pack her lunch and was forced to buy and eat an egg sandwich, which filled her with gas. After she broke wind very loudly in front of her students, they gave her unflattering nicknames for a few weeks. 4) A student teacher muttered “Actually” under his breath, but what the teacher observing him thought he had muttered was “Oh, sh*t,” a phrase the observing teacher wrote about on the evaluation of his teaching performance.

Helen Lieberstein Shaphren taught deaf children, and she took the children each week to an ice cream parlor, where they ordered a cone of whatever flavor ice cream they wanted; however, if they did not speak clearly enough for the proprietor of the ice cream parlor to understand them, they got vanilla ice cream. One boy cried when he got vanilla ice cream instead of the chocolate ice cream he wanted, but Ms. Shaphren remained firm. It took months of effort for the little boy to order clearly enough for the proprietor of the ice cream parlor to understand his order, but when he did, both Mrs. Shaphren and the proprietor of the ice cream parlor cried. (Mrs. Shaphren was a pioneer of education for deaf children. She once applied for a teaching job and was told that Arizona had no need of special education but she could teach in a regular classroom. She declined the job offer, and she opened a school for deaf children in her home.)

Comedian Richard Pryor had an understanding teacher named Miss Marguerite Yingst when he was in the sixth grade. He often came to school late, and she made a deal with him. If he came to school on time each day for a week, she would let get in front of the class and perform for 10 minutes Friday afternoon. She remembers, “It was great for Richard. The other pupils loved him. And Richard kept his promise. Got to school on time.”

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