Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mister Burson Wasn't a Nice Person

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I know it’s going to sound as if I was a real rebel in high school but honestly I wasn't.  Most of the time I was running around from activity to activity like Little Mary Sunshine except I was miserable inside. 

I always had a hard time with math.  In some part I attributed this to a change in schools when I was in fifth grade.  In my new school they had already covered fractions and I missed the foundations on that and thereafter struggled with certain basic concepts.  This was before there were calculators available on every device in your life. You couldn't avoid math.  You had to take algebra and geometry if you planned to go to college so  algebra and geometry it was.  My algebra teacher, Mr.Viglione, was a kind-hearted easy-going guy who coaxed me through the class and was always encouraging.  My experience with geometry was quite the opposite.

Mr. Burson was a short uptight Pee-Wee Herman-looking guy who had slicked-back hair, wore a suit and had this precise character about him.  Everything FIT.  Except for me.  Those angles and planes never seemed to add up and he was annoyed each and every time I asked a question in class — which was frequently.  He always answered, but in a way that didn’t always help me get to the answer and he replied with such disdain that eventually I stopped asking.  Still I had to pass and it was looking doubtful I’d get by with more than a D.  

Now for someone who is used to A’s a D is a blow.  And I had the kind of father who ONLY saw the misses.  If I brought home a report card with all A’s except for one C in Algebra, he’d bellow, “What’s this C?”  If the next marking period that C was a B and I had a C in Phys Ed, he’d say, “Well, you know gym is important TOO.”  I couldn’t win.  Not with my dad and certainly not with Mr. Burson.

One particularly difficult class (could it have been cosigns and tangents or are those not parts of geometry?) I kept asking questions because I knew we’d have a test and these would be on it.  I guess his limit was reached when he shouted (and if I’m not mistaken, threw a piece of chalk at me), “What’s the matter with you, are you stupid or something?!”  Well that did it for me.  No matter how I looked at it, he was the teacher and it was his job to teach me and it certainly wasn’t to humiliate me.  In my 10th grade superiority I gathered my books and notebooks, got up and left the class, went straight down to the Assistant Principal’s office, fuming and furious. 

Mr. Herold tried to get me to calm down but I had one thing in mind: I wasn’t going back in there until the weasel apologized.

“Be reasonable,” he said.

“It’s not my fault he can’t do his job.  HIS job is to teach me and if he can’t find a way to make the subject understandable — then I guess HE must be stupid!” I shot back.

“You don’t mean that.  This is a simple misunderstanding,” he entreated, trying to get me to calm down.

“Oh no, it’s not.  He called me stupid in front of the entire class!  I AM NOT stupid!  AND he needs to apologize to me in front of everyone or I’m not going back.” I stubbornly dug my heels in, hugging my books tighter to my chest.

“Well, let me see what I can do.  Take a seat outside in the office until next period. And work on your Geometry!” he nudged smilingly.  I really liked Mr. Herold. He was a real adult but a straight shooter with kids.  Not all that huff-and-puff authority stuff like the principal, just a real guy who seemed to like kids and want to help them.  

“Come see me after last period.”

After all these years I don’t know if it’s just a figment of my imagination but in my mind at the end of that day Mr. Burson was in Mr. Herold's office and apologized for losing his temper —  begrudgingly — without ever looking me in the eye.  I felt the satisfaction of having HIM a bit humiliated in kind, but it wasn't in front of the class.  Still I knew there were limits to what I could demand — even when right is right.

When I was a teacher you’d think I’d have learned the lesson that humiliation was not an appropriate strategy in the classroom but there was a time  once  when my patience was tested, when nothing else had worked, and so, I resorted to humiliation. Immediately after I'd done the deed, I wasn't proud of it. 

James Walker, wherever you are, I hope you’ve forgiven me.


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  2. Thank goodness we don't have to relive some of those awful school days, well, except for maybe the occasional nightmare. You know the ones, you have to take a math test but you can't remember the combination to your locker to get your math book and you're not going to graduate if you don't take the test?!! I have to hand it to you, you had some balls in 10th grade. I'd have never had the gumption to march up to the principals office like that. Good for you. I didn't grow those kind of gonads until I became a mother. That changed everything. Good story. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Donna! Let's hope we don't have to relive those nightmare years...ever!