Some weren’t perfect teachers, although I don’t remember ever truly understanding that which separated perfection from ... just OK. Besides, we’re talking perfection in the mind of an impressionable teenager. That’s a debate that could rage for years.
So, throwing perfection and its many subjective measures out the window, let’s just talk true impact ... the instructors who taught far more than any textbook could ever hope.
As previously documented, my all-time favorite teacher came in my sophomore and junior years. Her name was Dorothy Hale — I guess it still is — and she taught English and a new curriculum at Collierville High School called American Studies back in the early ‘70s. It was an innovative hybrid combining U.S. history with American literature.
Mrs. Hale wasn’t too far removed from college graduation so she arrived onsite at the home of the Mighty Dragons with exuberance, fresh ideas and a pretty face. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Pretty face? Oh, so we’re talking schoolboy crush? Maybe.
But that’s not the point. I kept my fantasies to myself ... and I studied. Besides, her husband was much taller than me and he looked like a 20th Degree Black Belt in Karate, Judo, Kung Fu, Jujutsu, Taekwando, Aikido, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Hapkido and maybe a few other disciplines within the world of martial arts. And yes, I googled some of those names to sound impressive. Truth is, I’d never heard of half of them before now. But I’m sure they hurt.
Anyway, pretty face and youthful enthusiasm accepted, Mrs. Hale had an impact. I’m pretty sure I aced her courses, but her classroom creativity — and her obvious zeal for teaching — left an impression. Hopefully, I will never forget her as an instructor and the glowing image she brought to her profession.
Yet, hers was only one form of impact. Another I remember came at the hands of a longtime teacher who personified old-school teaching. He was grey-haired, knowledgeable in his field, had a dry wit about him, and he was a lot older than Mrs. Hale.
His name was James Cowan. His adult buddies called him Jimmy. I called him Mr. Cowan.
The name sent shivers down young spines. That’s because most kids my age — and especially those who had sat in his classroom — perceived him as hard. Well ... he was. But he was fair. In Mr. Cowan’s teaching style, you either studied ... or you wished you had.
Mr. Cowan taught Latin, Spanish and English. He was in charge of the school’s bookstore and I’m pretty sure he was a faculty advisor to the senior class. Under his tutelage, I took Latin I, Latin II, Spanish I and Spanish II. Looking back on those years, I’m thinking, “Wow! What was I thinking?” Probably the same thoughts that directed me to Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II and Advanced Math. I loved English, tolerated Latin and struggled in Spanish. But I hated math ... perhaps an underlying reason for my adulthood foray into journalism.
Mr. Cowan was known ... er, feared actually ... for his pop quizzes. He gave two kinds. One was a teaser that tested our preparation. It didn’t count as part of our grade. The other kind was the real deal ... for the record, so to speak. It counted.
I’m chuckling even now as I recall the way he opened class when he knew a pop quizz was coming. Rubbing his hands together and with that wry Mr. Cowan kind of smirk, he would say, “And now, on a scratch sheet of paper ...” or “And now, on a CLEAN sheet of paper ...”
It was our signal. Pull out a sheet of paper and clear our desks. His pop quizzes were always delivered orally and we would write down the answers. “Scratch” and “Clean” were the words of note. Either way, we were getting a pop test. “Scratch” meant this was just for fun. “Clean” meant unparalleled doom for those who had not prepared.
This teaching style was especially painful in my freshman year. It was Latin I, and Mr. Cowan’s class came right after my lunch period. That Latin I textbook finished the year with some of the most unbecoming food stains. Decorative splotches lined page after page because the book was always open while a table full of classmates of like dilemma and I crammed food from our plates and wisdom from our textbooks.
The Latin vocabulary pages were always the most colorful — red splotches from soup, yellow from mustard, green from cole slaw, and sometimes sticky depending on the sugar level of dessert. Vocabulary was always among Mr. Cowan’s favorite subjects for a pop quizz.
Kids who didn’t multi-task during their mid-day meal were the first to fall victim to Mr. Cowan’s directive for “clean” sheet of paper. They were the quickest to breathe deep sighs of relief with the word “scratch.”
Regardless of his teaching technique, Mr. Cowan taught far more than Latin. He instilled in students the powerful impact of preparation. In another life, he should have been a Scoutmaster. He had the “Be Prepared” part down.
I always liked Mr. Cowan. The unending barrage of pop quizzes was a pain to a busy teenager, but four decades later I see through his madness.
It goes like this. Life throws a lot of punches and pulls plenty of tricks. But preparation can soften any blow and dispel most any mystery.
Mr. Cowan’s teaching wasn’t magic. It was common sense.
And that was his impact.