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March 20, 2006 [ More archived home pages here ]

A Teacher's Grade

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Today's song is Monday, Monday by The Mamas And The Papas, released in February 1966.

It was around this time forty years ago this month, a high school English teacher taught me a lesson I never forgot. She didn't have to bother herself, she could have let me drift to the dark side where I was headed. I only realized her heart as a teacher was in the right place for me, years after that event took place. I will relate that story now.

During my first two years in high school, I was a very poor student in attitude and study habits. At the time of my Sophomore year, I really hated my English classes. I couldn't stand the literature courses with all those plots, questions, and footnotes about stories and topics that didn't register with me. The studying of literature such as Main Street and The Scarlet Letter really bored me to the extreme.

I was a a smart-ass as a young teenager. Disrespect for authority figures was a part of my nature. Unfortunately, I didn't make much effort to understand when true humanity was at work by my high school teachers. I sure wasted a lot of time back then; theirs and mine.

My Sophomore English class was taught by Miss Karpen. She was an older woman and had taught for a long time in the Chicago Public School system. She didn't express much humor and had little patience for fools. I tested her patience constantly with my smart-ass comments in class that made everybody laugh but her. Every quiz and test I took in Miss Karpen's class up until March of 1966 was either below average or failure. That didn't bother me then because I was in denial at that age about so many things.

One day, she was making a point about the literature to the class when I made some kind of rude, distracting, smart-ass comment. She didn't appreciate it and we had the following short conversation:

"Mr. Larson, you think you are so funny. You fail every quiz and test because you don't pay attention. But, you won't find it funny to go through life with zeroes in front of your name!"

I immediatly replied, "Oh yeah? What about James Bond, 007?"

The entire class broke-up with uncontrollable laughter for several minutes. I was feeling pretty good, I had nailed Miss Karpen to the wall with that remark. Score one for jerk Don, a zero for teacher Miss Karpen.

Except my being the scorekeeper didn't matter. Funny how I can remember how her face changed, expressing an emotion I had never seen in her before as she turned and returning to her desk, stopped to write a short note to herself. Then after the class stopped laughing, she went right back to teaching as if nothing happened. But something had happened and something was about to happen to me in the next couple weeks.

Every couple or so months, student course books had grades entered into them by teachers for each particular subject. I have produced the scanned image further down from my high school course book for the year in question.

Normally, Miss Karpen, would collect the students course books at the beginning of the class, mark them, and calling out the student's name, they would come up and receive it back from her without comment. Everyone but I was treated that way during that Third Marking Period. She had something reserved for me that was extra.

She quietly called out my name and when I approached her, she pointed with her finger to sit down in the chair next to her desk. I sat down and she opened my course book to the page where she had entered my grade. It was a distinct shock to me to see a RED 'F" entered for her class and on the following page, four CHECKMARKS enumerating my deficiencies. I gulped and a really bad feeling came over me as she looked directly into my eyes and quietly spoke so that only we could hear:

"Mr. Larson. You are failing this class. You have but one chance left to pass it. IF, you keep your mouth shut for the rest of the year and you study really hard, you might, just might pass this course with a 'D'. You may now return to your seat. A word to the wise should be sufficient."

I did as she requested. I didn't say one more thing out-of-turn for the rest of that school year while in her class. I studied hard and she kept her side of the deal. I never told my classmates about her admonition to me. I was too ashamed. She passed me with a 'D' for my final grade.

Somewhere in my mind over the next two years, I figured out I could use my mental capabilities much better in school. I graduated high school with a B- average.

Miss Karpen suffered a heart attack in the Fall of 1966. I remember upon hearing that news, feeling some guilt knowing I had stressed her out so many times while in her class in the previous two semesters.

I was in my early twenties when I started reflecting about my life. I came to realize the benefit Miss Karpen had given to me those many years before. Here's the way I understand and accept her gift.

Miss Karpen could have let me slide into oblivion. She could have told herself, "This boy is lost, he'll never amount to anything. I think I'll just ignore him and in a few months I'll be rid of him. He'll get what he deserves in life at some point."

Yes, she could have done that and I wouldn't have blamed her if she had. I gave her a lot of trouble just because I was a troubled youth at that time.

I think instead, she decided that day she wrote that note to herself, to teach me an important personal lesson in life and give me a chance to redeem myself. Maybe she saw something in me that I didn't recognize myself until much later in life.

Miss Karpen wasn't the only person to help me see the light, others did that for me too. However, she especially stands out in my mind as someone who went that extra mile for me when I wouldn't even take a single step to save myself. She was a great teacher and I didn't know it then. She was an even better human being and I know that all too well since I was in my early twenties. I've thanked her in my prayers for setting me on a better path in life. Part of that path is that am fully committed in my career, interpersonal activities and I have a straight 'A' average for all college credit classes I've taken since 1979.

Miss Karpen helped mold my eventual teaching philosophy by shaping me with her tough-love ways those forty years ago. You made a difference Miss Karpen and I give you an 'A+' for effort. Thank you what you did for me!


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