Wonderful, Wonderful TeachersBy Grandma Ellen
I don’t have one memorable teacher from my school days. I have two.
Mrs. Margaret Farrar was my English literature teacher during my sophomore and junior years in high school. Mrs. Farrar had three claims to fame:
1) she was the only teacher in the school who addressed her students by Miss or Mr. and their last name (I was Miss Baron); 2) she taught Dave Garraway, the original host of the NBC “Today” show; and 3) she looked like a bull dog.
Our course of study would probably be the equivalent of an AP English curriculum today: Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, read and studied in Middle English; Shakespeare’s “Hamlet and “Macbeth”, using the original Folio editions; and the essays of Addison and Steele, among other works. Mrs. Farrar believed that memorization was good for the soul – and the mind. And so we learned by heart the “Prologue” and the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer; the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet; and the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech from Macbeth. You never knew when you were going to be called upon to recite one of these; so you couldn’t fudge the memorizing. One day Mrs. Farrar called on me to recite the Chaucer “Prologue”. I knew it then, and I know it still. In fact, when I had to undergo a closed-tube MRI a few years ago, I devised a plan to help me keep my sanity during the procedure. As a counterbalance to the incredible banging, I repeated the Canterbury Tales to myself over and over again, along with Eugene Field’s poem “Little Boy Blue”, which I had learned in seventh grade, for one and a half hours. Chaucer and Field helped me counteract the god-awful racket of the MRI.
Memorizing wasn’t the only teaching method Mrs. Farrar used. She structured wonderful discussions about each of the works we read, allowing her students to express their thoughts on the classics we studied.
T. Nelson McGill was the professor in a college class I took on British and American drama. Professor McGill didn’t have as many quirks as Mrs. Farrar did, but he was a fine instructor. In subtle ways, he led us to uncover the essence of each play we read by asking us to think deeply about the words of the playwright and the structure of the play.
Fifty years on, I still remember a question he asked about “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill. “What tells us that the first two wives of the father were very different from one another?” Several students responded with reasonable answers, but they weren’t what Prof. McGill was looking for. Finally, I blurted out, “The sons’! “Right you are, Ellen”. (He called us by our first names). The discussion that ensued delved deeply into the ideas that O’Neill put forth in his drama.
I always loved final exams that gave me an opportunity to write coherent thoughts about the class materials in my exam Blue Book. Prof. McGill was a master at structuring questions that required his students to bring together in an essay everything we had studied and then to use our own intelligence to come to new insights about the work. One such essay question dealt with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”. I had just seen the play on Broadway during Christmas vacation, and I wrote pages and pages and pages in answer to his question. Alas, I don’t remember it. But I DO remember that it elicited some of the finest writing I did during my entire college career. And still, today, I will travel long distances to see “Our Town”.
What was it about these two so very different teachers that has brought them to mind all these years later? Each in her or his own way taught me to think about what they taught critically. Both of them used the Socratic method to elicit responses, and both allowed ample trial and error on the part of their students.
Ellen Baron is a wife, mother and grandmother who has had three distinctive careers:
1) as an editor at an educational laboratory;
2) as a businesswoman who ran a private-label group at Black & Decker, and then served as Director of Marketing for a consumer electronics start-up company; and
3) as an academic administrator who was director of a post-baccalaureate business program.
Her 'Just Jobs' (as opposed to "Careers") included piano teacher and French tutor (her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis having been in French).
Now retired from both careers and jobs, Ellen serves on the Maryland State Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as the Boards of several non-profits. She has lived in England, Switzerland and Germany, as well as St. Louis, Boston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, now, Baltimore, MD.