I’ve been inspired by the “Ms. What’s Her Face” essay to relate a similar story in my own life. Don’t expect a tidy moral because it didn’t end well, and I can’t tell you what I learned. For your consideration, I offer you Elizabeth Jellison. Yes, I remember her name. Too well.
Going into my senior year at my high school, I got to take advanced English. It was the best English course my school offered and I went into it very excited. We would be writing every day! Our best would be expected of us! I would finally be challenged by an English class! We would be getting real feedback on our writing, beyond just redmarks and grammar corrections! And in walked Mrs. Jellison. She looked pretty impressive. Picture the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, but with an intelligent face. Yeah, it’s a contradiction of sorts, but so was the Jellison.
We did write everyday. For ourselves mostly. What quickly became the most notable thing about the Jellison’s presence was her absence. Sometimes she wasn’t even there to start the class, there would just be a writing prompt on the board. Then she’d wander in for a few minutes and read a book or mark papers. The class is still writing, some of them, but most of us are just chatting with each other by this point. She may conduct a bit of class now as we end our freewrite time, or she may split again. My point is, the Jellison was actually away from our class more than she was in it. I began to document the times she was out in my notebook under the heading “Jellison’s Journies”. Being who I was at the time, I began to leave whenever she did and see if I would get back before she did. Most of the time, I got back first. And, in my journalistic drive for fairness(yeah, I was on the school paper), I documented my absences as well as the Jellison’s.
Guess what happens next? I came back one day to find her at her desk, glaring at me as I took my seat. She calls me out before the class, and I call her out right back, and war was openly declared. Of course, she already knew I was leaving class all this time, because I’d been ratted out. I didn’t care, though. I felt I had the right to approach this class with the same effort the Jellison was, which was half-assed at best. I wanted to make a point with my actions and attitude as much as with words. Well, who did this hurt? Did it hurt the Jellison? Not much, though it did strike a chord with her I thought. Maybe a part of me wanted to entertain the class. Some of them were amused by our battle, I think. Most of them couldn’t have cared less. So mainly I was just damaging myself. But I was stubborn that way when I was a teenager.
In Jellison’s defense, I’ll mention that she was the head of the English Department at our school as well as teaching five periods of AP English every day. Even at that time, I appreciated that she had a ton of responsibility on her shoulders and that when she left class, she was doing work as the head or whatever. But to me, that didn’t make up for the fact that I was feeling cheated. I wasn’t the only one, either, though I was the only one acting like an asshole about it. Friends were warning me about self-destruction but I didn’t care. You can’t change this situation, they would say. Really? I would retort. It sure won’t change by doing nothing. I complained to the Jellison and I complained to the vice-principal. They both blew me off, I felt. But at this point, I did decide to stop my wanderings. They were going to suspend me if I didn’t stop leaving class.
The focus of the class was creative writing and we submitted stories weekly. This became another area of contention and I firmly believed the Jellison now had it out for me. I still do. I realized that part of it was my doing, but she seemed unable to view me and my writing without bias. So in the second quarter of the year, I was getting useless feedback from her. She would just write reflections like “strange” or “interesting, but…” and not develop any of her thoughts even when I got the chance to talk to her. One day on a story I’d really sweated over, she just wrote “What?” in huge letters. Was it that she felt my stories were weird? Psychotically strange? It was creative writing we were in! If my little stories were not to her taste, there were still ways to be objective about it. I really felt she couldn’t separate her dislike for me from her feedback process. That being said, I was getting a high B in the class at midterm, which was remarkable considering my disciplinary marks being, of course, very low. And that was fine, but I wanted better feedback. I wanted to improve as a writer, and the Jellison was deliberately not giving me what I needed.
We continued to clash with each other, sometimes in front of the class. On the rare occasion when she would tell us something, I would openly mock her. The Jellison mostly kept her cool, but could not help sometimes sending scathing remarks my way as well. It got so ugly, that I did not finish the class and got an incomplete mark. The last month of the schoolyear I pretty much quit going to her class entirely and refused to take her final exam, even though it might have salvaged my grade. This experience influenced my college career in a negative way also, because at the slightest inkling of disdain for the teacher I would just drop the class. I was a habitual class-dropper, withdrawing from probably a third of my college courses and, eventually, college itself. Up until the Jellison, I had loved school, even the difficult courses. And, no, I had not been in love with all my teachers, but I had never bucked them the way I did her. I think, looking back, that it just all came to a head in the Jellison’s class and any frustration with the education process that I had ever felt just boiled over. Because I had not constructively dealt with my issues along the way it was too much for me, and that’s why it impacted my early college career the way it did. During my senior year of high school, I also had a falling out with a teacher I had just adored and who had encouraged me throughout high school. That’s another tale, but this combination of failures was devastating at the time. I didn’t full appreciate back then the impact these things were having on me, but they were more crushing than the breakup of a friendship or romantic relationship.
Though we were both at fault, I still feel the Jellison should have known better. Maybe I was difficult to deal with, but I don’t think I was beyond her reach. She just didn’t apply any positive energy to student relationships, and I think that’s a fault with a lot of teachers. If you consider that the Jellison taught AP English, you might come to the conclusion that I have: that she went into each class thinking none of those students would need anything other than just a focus on the curriculum, and that they wouldn’t need any policing or counseling. Whatever she felt, I know that I failed Elizabeth Jellison’s expectations the year we had together. I admit to that. But what about when a teacher fails the student, and she knows she’s failing them? Shouldn’t they know better?