LEARNING FROM MRS. LEARY

Teachers can teach amazing lessons if we choose to listen. This is just one example of how it can happen. Please comment nicely!

The other day someone mentioned that there were over 500 seniors in my high school graduating class. I wonder how many of us remember Mrs. Leary.

Mrs. Leary was a science teacher. I don't know how old she was, but I remember being fascinated by her skin. It was so incredibly dry and wrinkled that her face looked like it was made of sand. I remember thinking her face would crumble if you ever touched it. I've always been a fan of classic horror, and Mrs. Leary's dried up, ancient look really reminded me of Boris Karloff in The Mummy. On top of that, she had this really weird-looking orange hair. It was a shade I really can't describe, somewhere between orange soda and rust. Sometimes I wondered if she dyed her hair. But I spent more time thinking about how hair like that was just proof of being Irish. It was ugly, but I envied that weird orange hair because I felt like everyone in school was Irish except for me.

I didn't really like Mrs. Leary. I thought she was silly and out of it. She had this really slow, dazed way of talking, and she wrote crooked on the blackboard and she let the bad kids get away with anything. On top of that, she would tell weird stories in class that had nothing to do with science. I really hated that because in those days I was all business. School was the only thing I was good at, and I wanted to show off how smart I was every minute I was in class. Anything else was just a waste of time.

One day Mrs. Leary told a story about some stupid kid who drank too much and passed out in the snow in front of her house. And at the end of the story she went outside and rescued him. But she wasn't bragging. Mrs. Leary never bragged. She just sounded confused all the time. And at the end of the story she said something like, "well, everyone says the Irish are terrific, a real friendly group, but sometimes I wonder what's wrong with us."

What was the point of that story? At the time I thought Mrs. Leary was just too old and out of it to remember what came next on the lesson plan. I certainly didn't see any connection between me and that kid in the snow. I didn't see how that story could help me, either. I studied day and night and my grades were excellent. What more did I need to know?

Well, after thinking about it for forty years, I suspect that Mrs. Leary was actually trying to tell us something about who she was and how she felt about us. She was trying to say that she was always there for us if we were in trouble. No matter how messed up we were she was there to help. And she was willing to help even outside of school and even when our problems were completely our own fault. Even life-threatening problems could be solved if we just asked for help.

Mrs. Leary was really special. But I didn't get it. I was the smartest kid in the class and I completely missed the point. Everything went in one ear and out the other. And there were consequences.

You know how I mentioned that Mrs. Leary wrote crooked on the board sometimes? One time I tried to get a conversation going with Marianne Singleton in English class by making fun of Mrs. Leary's crooked hand-writing. I thought that would make me look cool. But Marianne didn't think it was funny. When I mentioned that Mrs. Leary complained about having astigmatism, Marianne said, "I have astigmatism." That ended that conversation!

After school that day, I told my father how awful I felt when I made fun of Mrs. Leary. I wanted more than anything in the world to be friends with Marianne Singleton. Instead I made myself look like a real jerk, a creepy guy no-one could possibly like. When I told my father, I thought maybe he'd have some ideas about how I could do better next time, or connect with Marianne in a different way. But all he said was, "I guess you put your foot in your mouth." I remember he said it very slowly, absently, like his mind was a million miles away. And he gave me the strangest look, like he didn't understand why I was bothering him with something so meaningless that was none of his business in the first place.

Now at the time all this just made me dislike Mrs. Leary that much more. You might say I blamed her for getting me in trouble. But I think it was more than that. Mrs. Leary cared about people in a way my father didn't. At the time I really looked up to my father. He was the only adult I trusted. But when I really needed him he let me down. And I responded by hating people like Mrs. Leary that much more. That was the biggest mistake I could have made.

I think Mrs. Leary would have helped me if I had told her how I felt about my father, about girls and being different. Instead I kept quiet. I froze to death in the snow. Well, okay, I didn't freeze to death in the snow. But I paid a heavy price for not being ready to listen. Teachers can teach amazing lessons if we choose to listen.