The Other Side of the Blackboard

school-teacherRobert Fulghum wrote “Everything I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten”. I congratulate him on his progress. He was a good student and learned lessons quickly.  I had an excuse. Growing up in Webster Wisconsin in the early 60’s there was no kindergarten. Everything I needed to know I learned in detention. Better late than never.

With the demolition of the old High School many of us are joyously reminiscing about our days wandering in the halls of WHS. Reflecting back I know many of my classmates understood the lessons being taught and actually learned something. I wasn’t particularly interested in learning at the time but now in retrospect I can see some of the lessons learned. Many of them not until years later did I begin to understand the full impact of my teachers as they did their best to impart knowledge and understanding. Perhaps the best way to describe it is with a gardening analogy. Seeds were planted but it took some time to bear fruit.

I stumbled along after high school. There were 3 years in the Army infantry and a handful of odd jobs to make ends meet. However, it wasn’t until several years later that I began to find my niche in life. It was during that process of maturing when I knew I wanted to return and spend the rest of my career serving the people of Burnett County, especially the Webster area.

Now a small-town family physician working in the area where I grew up and went to school can lead to some awkward moments and delightful circumstances. I have had the chance to visit with friends, relatives, former classmates and former teachers. Over the past 25 years I have had the wonderful opportunity to care for every one of my elementary school teachers in some fashion and through that process you see former teachers as real people with dreams and fears and struggles just like everyone else.

The best lesson I learned started in first grade. It was after a morning thunderstorm in the spring and fresh water puddles called out to us during recess. Several of us answered the call and when recess was over, we sloshed and dripped our way back to our classroom and desk. Mary Jane Ramstrom was our first-grade teacher and rather than simply scolding us or calling our parents, she took matters into her own hands, literally. As she worked her way between the rows of desks, if you were dripping you were introduced to a sharp rap from her hand across your backside. Even now, more than 50 years later, when I meet her in the community, I remind her that she was the first teacher to give me a spanking. She politely responds that I must not have deserved it, but she certainly thought so at the time. Every one of us that were spanked that day went on to lead normal productive lives. A little discipline never hurt anyone.

Second grade found me in the classroom of Leona Babcock. From my youthful point of view, she already appeared old, but I had the joy of caring for her until her death, many years later.  As she aged, she needed more assistance than could be provided in her home. As we made arrangements for such care, I was confronted with a difficult situation.  In a weakened state but with as much authority as she could muster, she pointed her crooked arthritic finger in my direction. Her finger, intended for me, deviated about 30 degrees to the right even though it was clear I was the focus of her verbal assault. (It may have been 20 or 35 degrees but everything I learned about geometry I learned in Mr. Pardun’s class). “JOHNNY!” she began. I knew it was going to be serious when I ceased being Doctor and was being called by the same name she used in second grade. “JOHNNY, DON’T YOU EVER PUT ME IN THE NURSING HOME AGAIN!” I nodded and paused, trying to gather my thoughts. How do you talk back to your second-grade teacher?  She taught me multiplication tables, how to color between the lines and tie my shoes. There was no way I could go against her wishes. But try as she could, sheer determination wasn’t enough. She was unable to continue living independently at home. I know she forgave me because on her passing I was contacted by the funeral home to be one of her pall bearers along with several of her other students. It was an honor and not to be taken lightly.

After Leona, there was Stella Cameron, Lolita Taylor and Grace Bacon. The lessons given were more than academics. They taught by example. With dedication, diligence and respect they led us all and gave us a foundation in which to lay the paths of life we would eventually follow.  When correction was necessary they didn’t wait around for a family conference, it was administered quickly and directly.

Junior High was another matter. We survived those awkward years and that was enough. It was troubling to get a big pimple on your face but more anxiety provoking was the difference in rates of maturity among classmates. Some like myself, were slow to climb out of our childhood appearance. Others seem to leap out of childhood and into adulthood in a single bound. In the Phy. Ed. Class the differences were obvious. In one corner of the locker room shower, huddled scrawny hairless weaklings and on the other side deep voiced young men with bulging muscles, acne and body hair strutted about. I was one of the scrawny ones. I would go home and stand in front of the mirror with fierce determination and sheer will trying to induce the sprouting of facial hair and body hair. Every day after showering I would frantically search for a chest hair. When I finally found one it was gray!

Teachers in junior high seemed more stern in my opinion but I guess if you have to deal with a bunch of kids caught in a hormone storm somewhere between adulthood and childhood, I would be a bit cross as well. It was somewhere around those years that I recall classmates trying to smoke. I was never drawn to the habit but I always wondered about the teacher’s lounge. I can recall a couple of times when the teacher’s lounge door would open and a cloud of cigarette smoke would rush out into the hallway.

Once I passed through junior high, the end seemed in sight. The role and purpose of the teachers seemed to change. While many continued to teach “by the book” others had a more relational approach. For some, that approach provoked a negative response and others it was positive and nurturing. I will refrain from any negative comments as many of you may have had the same experiences under desks or being humiliated at the blackboard.

Mr. Rich could put the fear of God into anyone. Mrs Nichols ruled her classroom with an iron hand as well. Mr. Urness ruled nothing, but his art class was always fun if you didn’t get hit in the eye with a ball of clay or splattered paint. But he had a laugh that I could never forget. Many former teachers have remained close friends of mine until this day. Mr. Jim Antilla taught physics and chemistry and my first quarter grade in introductory chemistry was a “D”. But he inspired me and challenged me to do better. The second quarter I received “C”, the third “B” and finally the last quarter an “A”.  His teaching was partly the reason I went on to college and became a physician. I am not sure he saw much potential at first and probably didn’t hold much hope, but he did make a difference. It was always a lesson for me to realize sometimes the simplest acts of respect and the subtlest prodding in a given direction can have profound results. Jim Antilla was a groomsman in our wedding and we still keep in touch.

Kathy Bruss was my typing teacher along with Chuck Macke. Yes, it was typing because at that time computers were nonexistent in the general world. The first day half of us sat at manual typewriters and half at electric typewriters. My children still comment on the strength and authority that I use when typing on my computer keyboard. What can I say? I learned on a manual typewriter.  I remember begging Kathy Bruss to let me out of the class because as a “mountain man in training” anyone with any foresight should know that I would never ever have any use for the ability to type. How ironic that the world would change so dramatically and now millions sit daily in front of computer screens hammering out messages with skills learned in typing class.

While Kathy Bruss forced my typing skills, it was Cathy Schmidt that taught me to write. At one point in my formative years I held the idea of a writing career. That is until I realized most writers with my level of talent still live with parents. I can’t blame my lack of talent on her teaching but she did inspire me to write. In part, it was her inspiration to write as I do now, simply for the joy of sharing about life.

Marty and Geri Pearson are others that have impacted lives. While I never had Marty as an art teacher I know him as a friend.  However, my brother did have him as a teacher. It was Marty that inspired David to go on to art school and when my nephew was born, he was given the name of Marty. Geri taught with passion and conviction but always with gentleness. However, the most passionate teacher I can recall was Mr. K. I think our class was the first class he encountered at Webster. One of my classmates made the observation that by the end of the year we would all be in jail or we would all be dead. Yet to this day I haven’t found one person to speak unkindly about our school experience under the direction of Mr. K. He taught with conviction and led with passion and we are better people because of it. Thanks Mr. Kinziger.

It wasn’t only teachers but custodians, kitchen workers and bus drivers that left their mark on us. Inky Carlson and her crew served contentment on a plate. Her sloppy joes were the best ever.  Bus drivers dedicated to our safety would pick us up and drop us off in the worst weather. Custodians, always faithful cleaned up after us, mopping and buffing the marks left by street shoes on the gymnasium floor.

While school teachers have a profound effect on our lives even if only for a short span, it is the principal that has an effect on the teachers. During my tour of duty in the halls of WHS that person was Don Seitzburg. You can agree or disagree with his methods but you can’t deny that his life left an imprint on many and his paddle left an imprint on a few. Appearing gruff and tough, I came to realize later in life, he was a big teddy bear. As cancer ravaged his body he continued to work as a school principal until the last days. On the last day of school in his last year he sat in the lobby and watched the last students parade out the doors into the spring sunshine, released from homework into the grandest holiday ever, summer vacation. He was dedicated to his students until the end.

Teachers are some of the most dedicated people I have ever had the chance of meeting, not just at WHS but across the world. There are many who have touched my life, whose dedication and efforts remain unnoticed.  However their influence is no less valuable.  Highly educated and poorly compensated, they come to school with zeal and passion for teaching and leading and changing lives. Many spend countless hours at home correcting homework, preparing lesson plans and injecting their own personal assets and resources into the process. But it isn’t the lesson plans or the facility that is the difference, it is the personal side, the dedication, the commitment, the willingness to challenge each of us to achieve our own level of excellence. It is the encouragement when things aren’t always well at home or with friends or we fail to achieve our goals in athletics. It is the courage to discipline us when we wander off the straight and narrow path.

I offer a sincere THANK YOU to my teachers and to all teachers who are dedicated to their calling in life, to guide, enrich and challenge us to make us better and to make the world a better place.

I would encourage others to share your experiences and acknowledge how a teacher made a difference. Perhaps for them that will be the greatest reward ever.

Webster HS Faculty 1976

Webster HS Faculty 1976

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One thought on “The Other Side of the Blackboard

  1. John you mentioned Stella Cameron, she was one of Warren’s favorite teachers. It had been years since he had seen her, we were in Danbury visiting and were told Stella was working at a garage sale in town….so Warren and I went to find her, he walked up to her and said “Mrs. Cameron?”, she turned and without hesitation she called him by name…….what a memory. The other visit we had with her was at her home. She was telling us about a black bear that kept visiting her, she had a picture of him…..with his nose pressed up against the window looking at her. I asked her if she wasn’t a little bit afraid he would break through, “Oh not to worry, I have a back door, I could make it out in time.” such a great woman.

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