I’ve had many teachers over the years. A handful stand out in my memory.
In fifth grade, there was Mrs. Flodin, the art teacher, who was a stern, gray-haired woman who looked like a prison matron. Nobody else seemed to like her, but I secretly loved her because she had a roomful of art supplies, and she let me make art.
In high school, there was Mr. Lybbert, the debate coach, who taught me how to think on my feet, and introduced me to this really fabulous concept called “logic.”
I don’t think they teach that much anymore.
Lybbert — we never used the “Mr.” — didn’t act like a teacher so much as a really cool uncle.
He stands in contrast to my high school civics teacher — one of the football coaches who never could manage to pronounce my last name properly, even after a semester of me correcting him daily.
In college, there was Dr. Neil Daniel, an English professor. I signed up for his basic grammar class, because at age 18, I was already a word nerd. Within a week, he figured out that I was going to be incredibly bored with basic grammar. So he offered me one-on-one lessons in his office instead.
On my first visit, Dr. Daniel wrote Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” on the blackboard: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” And then he challenged me to figure out what parts of speech all those nonsense words were. Go ahead. Try it. Is “brillig” a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb? You think maybe it’s an adjective? What makes you say that?
It was even more fun than diagramming sentences.
My other favorite teacher in college was also an English professor: Dr. Fred Erisman. He taught courses in popular literature, instead of the stuffy books. In Dr. Erisman’s class, we read science fiction paperbacks, and mystery novels, and funny books, and he taught us that by reading those kinds of books, you can learn a lot about the people who liked to read them.
But of all my teachers, there was, most of all, Mrs. Payne. Technically speaking, she was Margaret Payne, but even today I can’t bring myself to call her by her first name.
She taught me piano for 11 years, starting when I was 6 years old.
Piano was my sport. I practiced every day after school. I drilled on the fundamentals. I did speed-work. There were competitions. I advanced to state a couple of times.
Thirty years later, I can still sit down at the piano and play the pieces that Mrs. Payne coached me through. I’m not as fast as I used to be. It makes my joints ache sometimes. And I really should have drilled more on those arpeggios. But they’re all still there: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, at my fingertips whenever I wish to call them up.
Because I had a really good teacher.