I didn’t grow up in a family with money. We never went hungry, and I never went without anything truly important, but—especially now that I’m a bill-paying adult myself—I know that almost every month was a major struggle. Despite our financial challenges though, my mother (who, as I’ve mentioned before, is a living saint) never compromised when it came to my education. My mom taught me to work hard and value knowledge, and the two of us worked our butts off to make sure I got the best education we could beg, borrow, and steal.
(Okay, we didn’t steal… but I could totally imagine my mom robbing a bank on my behalf. Never for herself, but for me? Hand over the ski mask.)
As a result of our combined efforts, I had the privilege (and it really was a privilege) of attending a college preparatory academy from 7th-12th grade, and spending four life-changing years at Bryn Mawr College. I walked away from two incredibly expensive institutions with almost no debt, thanks to a combination of financial aid, merit scholarships, and college tuition support provided by my mother’s (then) employer. And it’s a good thing, because—shockingly enough—doctoral degrees aren’t cheap. I have all the debt I can handle right now, thank you very much.
All of this is to say I know exactly how valuable my education was, and just how blessed I have been and continue to be. Sometimes, though, life decides to give you little reminders. Today has been one of those days.
I woke up this morning to an email informing me that my high school debate coach (we’ll call her Mrs. H) is battling leukemia. She was my English teacher in my senior year of high school, but I’ll always remember her as my coach, the woman under whose watchful eye I spent so many hours training, travelling, and competing.
The news that she is sick knocked me on my ass.
A la Susan Sontag, I really hate the use of military metaphors in discussions of the human body, a sentiment that I imagine Mrs. H would be proud of, as she’s devoted her life to helping young people develop critical thinking skills… and figure out what metaphors are. However, if anybody could be described as “battling” leukemia, I truly believe that it would be Mrs. H.
When I was in high school, I frequently referred to Mrs. H as a bulldog (behind her back, of course). She demanded commitment of energy and time that I wasn’t always prepared to give. She expected excellence, and didn’t give out participation trophies. Her debate kids went to nationals, and they placed. I…. was an alternate for nationals. Twice. She didn’t ever make me feel bad about it, but I knew that SHE knew I could have worked harder, given more time, been more successful, etc., had my heart been 100% in it. I LIKED Mrs. H, but she was the teacher under whose critique I was most likely to whither. I’d heard from other students that she’d quit a very lucrative corporate job to become a teacher, and always assumed that her direct approach to dealing with her students was a holdover from the days when she commanded an army of employees.
It’s been almost ten years since I graduated high school, and oh how my perspective has changed.
Today, if you asked my students, I bet a great many of my students would describe ME as direct. I demand a commitment of energy and time that THEY aren’t always prepared to give. I expect excellence, and I do NOT give out participation trophies. I genuinely believe that most of my students like me, but I’m also sure some of them wither—or at least wilt a little—as a result of the ink I spill on their papers. I believe I am a good instructor, and change I see in my students after working with me seems to support that assertion. I also know that I can be a bit of a bulldog.
There are many reasons that I am the instructor I am today. Part of it is the fact that I know exactly how valuable an education is, and refuse to give my students anything less than my best effort. My sense of what one should expect of oneself academically is undeniably conditioned by the fact that I’ve never been in a learning environment that wasn’t incredibly rigorous. However, I’m also the instructor I am today because I learn by example.
For four years I watched Mrs. H turn shy kids into nationally-known orators. I watched her find and cultivate skills in students that they didn’t even know they had, through sheer force of her personality. I watched her prove to students that YES, they had something to say, and YES, what they said mattered, and YES, that people were listening. She taught us to act like champions, and within a couple years of starting our school’s debate team, we needed another trophy case. If that’s what bulldogs do, I want to be a bulldog too.
Thank you Mrs. H. I don’t know who I’d be without you. You are loved immensely. Get well soon.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.