Going into my senior year of high school, I was very excited about my English class. I was eligible to take the highest level English my school offered and I thought things were going to be great. I would finally be challenged by an English class! We would be doing more than just a report on Animal Farm! The class would be writing every day! Yes, I was thinking in exclamation points! The buzz I was feeling was a palpable thing as I waited that first day in first period AP English for the arrival of our instructor, a formidable character named Elizabeth Jellison. She was not only the legendarily tough teacher who still seemed to figure in the nightmares of many graduates of my school, she was also the head of the English Department. This woman, I felt, would know her shit.
So there I am. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Then, in she strolled in all her glory. The Jellison was at least six feet tall with a husky build; not really fat, but immense. She had very dark, thick hair and palish skin. The colors she predominantly wore were red, black and white. If you picture her as the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, you’re not that far off. The woman was a very impressive presence. But more than that, she was fifteen minutes late. Oh, she apologized (sort of) and explained she’d been in conference. I figured this would just be a once-in-a-while occurrence, and since she was department head I would cut her some slack.
Quickly we were to learn that this would be the norm rather than a rarity. Nearly everyday we would come to first period to find a writing prompt on the board and no Jellison to be seen. Even when we started the period with her, she would usually leave after a time. One of my assumptions was being met, though; we were writing every day. But only for our own amusement. She didn’t even collect most of it. So, eventually, when she was gone people would just end up chatting with each other, not even bothering to pretend to write until the Jellison swept back into class. I think we felt that if the Jellison didn’t care, why should we? It doesn’t take much to disengage the teenage mind.
As for the engagement of said mind, I don’t think that was what the Jellison was after. I think she might have been one of those instructors who seem to feel that in an AP class the students will motivate themselves. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t go very far. Sure most of us were capable of policing ourselves and getting the work done, but what about feedback? How about inspiration? She offered very little of that. More to that point later.
At first, it was Jellison’s chronic excursions out of class that irritated me the most. I began to keep track of all of her late arrivals and expeditions under the heading “Jellison’s Journies.” I also, being the person I was, started leaving class whenever she did. In the interest of journalistic integrity, since I was on the school paper and all, I logged my forays as well. Patterns and formulae soon came to light: for example, the Jellison was always gone for at least seven minutes. Bank on it. But if the time stretched to ten minutes, she was about fifty percent likely to be gone twenty minutes or more. Discovering things like this was just about the only engagement I was getting from her class. In short, I had the Jellison timed out so well that I always made it back before she did.
Until one day a couple of months into the semester. I came back in to find the Jellison laying in wait for me like a queen spider in her web. How had this happened? I thought with my heart pounding. As the Jellison pierced me with her darksaber eyes, I felt I held my ground well, though. She boomed “Where have you been?”, which I thought was a stupid question. The point to me wasn’t the “where” but the “why”. I knew she had to get that my actions were not merely simple ditching but were meant as a criticism of her methods. So I retorted something like “Where have you been”, which she ignored. The class was mostly silent except for the supportive snickering of my friend in the back of the room.
It occurred to me as I took my seat that I had been ratted out by one of my classmates. The thing is, it took the Jellison a while to lay a trap for me then. She had to leave class, watch me leave after her, and then come back to spring the trap. I really didn’t think if someone was going to inform on me that they would wait weeks to do so. I figured the Jellison just couldn’t be bothered to deal with me until a day when she would have more time in class to do it. And of course, after we had our little confrontation, she had to go out for real and was gone for the remainder of the period.
I had to meet with the vice-principal and I tried to share how I felt about the Jellison’s absences from class, but he just wasn’t interested. She was a busy woman, he said, running the department and the AP curriculum and blah blah blah. I mean, I understood all that, but it didn’t change the fact that I was still feeling cheated. My way of critiquing was not going to fly with the school though, so I stopped leaving class. I was just going to get suspended if I kept doing that.
War had been openly declared between me and the Jellison now. She was still out of class a bit more than she was in it, but when she did present a lesson I openly mocked her. And though I think she tried to stay professional, she couldn’t help but send the occasional scathing comment my way. I firmly believe the Jellison was now unable to view me objectively as a student, and yes, that was largely my fault because of my disrespectful behavior. But shouldn’t a teacher be held to a higher standard? Shouldn’t they know better?
This was primarily a creative writing class and we submitted weekly papers on anything we wanted. They could be rants, stories or anything. What I wanted more than anything was feedback. I thought I wanted to be a writer even back then, and I wanted to get good. I thought going into this class that I would finally get some of the feedback that I really needed. I was getting nothing. The Jellison would just write comments like “interesting” or “needs more…” Needs more what? And because of “Jellison’s Journies”, there was not enough time to get one-on-one input, or quality face time as we call it today. I remember one paper I really sweated over, and she just wrote a big “What?” on it. It was beyond belief to me. The professional teacher was unable to get over her (somewhat understandable) bias against a student. The situation grew so toxic that I just stopped going to class entirely. When I was given a chance to take the Jellison’s final and salvage my grade, I stubbornly refused.
Today as I look back, I wonder what the eighteen-year-old me would have made of Paul Tough‘s article “What If the Secret to Success is Failure?” I probably would have shredded the paper and smoked it in a bong. But I would have definitely seen the whole journey with Jellison as an irredeemable failure. Was it, though? Did I get more than a funny story out of it? I’d like to think so. As a rebellious teenager I was much more stern about things than I am now. When an authority figure failed me, I didn’t know how to cope. I couldn’t find the lighter side of things as easily as I do now. I held teachers to a particularly high standard, which is why I look back upon most of them not so fondly. I was unforgiving. Instead of just trying to score points off of the Jellison, I should have adapted to the situation better. Of course she did things wrong. But it’s not productive to react to a wrong with even worse behavior.
I wonder if the Jellison even remembers me. At best, I was probably just a large blip on her radar. But I like to think she learned something from her own failure. In the Ken Robinson TED talk we watched the animation of, I think he likened the school system to a sort of factory trying to churn out model people. The problem with the factory system of schooling is that we don’t all fit in the same mold. The Jellison certainly wanted to just churn out students on a production line and that’s ultimately why I have to rank her as the worst teacher I ever had. The reason I got so disappointed in her was because she clearly had the intellect and the drive to really inspire a student. The woman did indeed know her shit. She just didn’t seem to want to channel her energies completely in our direction, even for a stinking hour a day. A person like that shouldn’t be teaching if they don’t really want to.