Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 1, 2012

Letter to Inspirational and/or Boring Teacher

As school starts and I fish through thumb drives for older paperwork I came across this story from an Ariel Gore workshop I took last year.

Mr. Bachman was my eighth grade science teacher.  This fictional letter is a tribute to him and others like him: The teacher you don’t realized was important in your life until long after he’s no longer in it.  When I workshopped it some readers did not understand the concept of the unreliable narrator, or that what the author says on the page is different from how he really feels.

So let me be clear: Mr. Bachman was a wonderful teacher no one really appreciated.

Feel free to use this when discussing text vs. subtext (those Common Core standards are coming!).

Dear Mr. Bachman;

Let me first say that I’m sorry you never lit a passionate fire for science under your students.

Perhaps it had to do with the drawings you made us copy into our lab notebooks every day.  They were quite fine drawings (perhaps drawings is not the right word for it—illustrations or diagrams—I’m not sure what name a scientist would use) and you must have been quite successful in the drafting class you took at some point because they did the trick.  I can still picture your cut away shot of an airfoil and how Bernoulli’s Principle makes an airplane lift.

Other teachers used overheads, but no other had their overheads mounted with oak tag frames so that they held up year after year.  In retrospect, it makes sense—I can’t imagine a time when you would not have been teaching, so why not have materials equally durable?  As far I know, you and the overheads are immortal.  I wonder if vampires have to buy new clothes each year, like mortal people do.  I don’t suppose a vampire would have an immortal suit—not even a cape—but little about the upkeep of their attire is written about.

Not that I’m comparing you to a vampire—you don’t have the personality—but we have wondered if you wore the same suit every day.

Ernie Cortland theorized that you had a closet full of the same suit—twenty of them, all dark brown.  None of us knew what was normal for an adult—did one wear the same suit every day, or are they like pants and you have to change them daily?  I still don’t know, because I’ve never had to wear a suit to work and I’m over forty now.  And then Easter week you wore that light brown suit all week; was the dark brown one in the shop?  I don’t mean for that to be mean, but we always wondered.

Last week I called the school.  We were the last class to graduate from East Junior High before it all moved into the elementary school next door and changed its name to Doherty Junior High, and even finding the phone number was a chore.  I would like to copy those overheads.  I’m teaching science this year.  At the head of my room is an interactive white board complete with access to the internet and special electronic markers.  With the world out there, though, it is really hard to explain to anyone how a refrigerator works.  Standing before a class of twenty-five eighth graders I wind up turning the technology off and drawing on the old white board what I remember of your overhead.

When the office told me they hadn’t heard of you, I realized it had been thirty years since I was in your class.  You’re probably dead.  But I also wonder, because although you seemed to have been teaching forever before I got there I really had no idea how old you were.  Old to a fourteen year old could mean anything.  In fact, I wonder if you are still there—not at Doherty Junior High (now Doherty Middle School)—but in your old room at East Junior High.  It was the last place I saw you.  You don’t belong anywhere but in that classroom, with acid resistant lab tables before tall windows and big iron radiators that clanged throughout the day.  Perhaps you stayed.  Like a vampire, the room might be your crypt and the office is just keeping your secret.  Or they don’t know, like the Cullens.

But you’re probably just dead.

You told us about how light is measured in candlepower, and that candlepower used candles made of sperm whale oil which are no longer available because of the international ban on whaling (I checked with Wikipedia, which gives a slightly more complex history).  It was a fascinating aside, but I share it with my students and they remember it.  Each class you had that blackboard on wheels with columns of terms, formulas, laws and the like.  We copied them in our lab book, along with the diagrams.  It wasn’t that interesting, but it was.  You told us how Archimedes discovered the idea of water displacement; I told that to my wife that when she was in the tub one day and noticed that the water rose and fell with her getting in and out (again, I checked Wikipedia and the story of Hiero of Syracuse was basically correct).

But what I really want are the overheads.  My students like me—I’m funny—but they left this year knowing very little science.  Our tests are in the dumper.  You had no personality, but every bit of science I know I learned in your class.  In high school I learned some theory and formulas, but yesterday I explained to my five year old son why the image of a spoon is right-side-up on one side, and upside-down on the other (and used the terms concave and convex, which we drew in our lab notebook).  But then I tried to draw it and that confused him.

The office at DMS forwarded me to the library, but the woman there shrugged (I could hear it on the phone).  I was thinking of driving down five hours to see for myself, which is even more difficult since my parents moved out of town four years ago.  I wish I still had my lab notebook, but I tossed it.

You’d like this, though.  Once, while drawing how a battery worked right before we made our own, Ernie poked me.  He’s written at the bottom of his drawing R.W. Bachman.  Remember, you signed every drawing—diagram—that way!  Who does that?  Only you!  Ernie decided he’d draw his notes exactly.  An homage, I think.

Thanks for teaching me everything I know about science, even if your class was never exciting.  If you have the overheads, let me know.

T. Triumph

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