Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Remembering High School


High school was a long time ago, 64 years as of this writing. This is what I remember about some of my classes at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California.

Math: My plane geometry teacher, Mr. Woelz, told us on the first day of the semester that we had to memorize ten theorems (were there ten? a million?) and that we had to be able to write them out exactly, word for word, in a test the following day. If we wrote them all correctly, we would get an A on the test. If we made the tiniest mistake or misspelling we would get an F. That’s it, nothing in between. I went home that night and cried. The next day I passed that test out of pure fear with an A. I don’t remember the theorems at all now, and suspect that I have never needed them in my daily life. However, years later, when coming out from under anesthesia after a surgery, I was sure that Mr. Woelz visited me in the recovery room. My mother insisted that he had not. The man made a big impression on me, though his theorems did not.

French: My French teacher, Mr. Wells, was Welsh and loud and terrifying to me. I was afraid to look him in the eye. During one class he accused me of not paying attention (as if I would have dared). He boomed, “Miss Harris, what are you doing there?!!” Actually, I had been picking at some nail polish on my nail, eyes averted, while listening in horrified fascination to him sing “La Marseillaise” at a volume that could have been heard halfway to Paris. Immediately after that class that day I dropped French and transferred into Spanish. Mr. Wells is the reason that when we went to Paris I only ever ordered café au lait, because it was the only French I could pronounce.

Spanish: My new Spanish teacher was lovely and gentle and I really wanted to marry him. I never actually mentioned this to him, since all conversations in that class had to be in Spanish. I found out much later that he married someone who (in my imagination) might once have been one of his students. It is possible that because of Señor Carrasco, I now live in Nuevo Mexico and make tacos and enchiladas and burritos and carnitas todos los días.

History/Civics: We had some stellar teachers for history and civics, and they changed the way we saw the world. Mr. Fesler helped us to deal with almost everyone we would ever come across by reminding us that we all had plenty in common and that each and every one of us was just a human being who “sweat and wore socks.” Mr. Curtin stunned us all one day by explaining the threat of nuclear competition and how it led to either world annihilation or an uneasy stalemate. We had walked into his class that day as carefree teenagers and left later as concerned citizens of the world.

English: English might have been one of my favorite classes because of all the reading involved but the problem was that the teachers always wanted us to discuss what we had read and wanted us to have an insight into what the author had actually meant. I didn’t give a fig about what the author had meant, I just wanted to treasure the words that meant the most to me and hold them close to my heart. The final blow was when our class was assigned to read and discuss “Moby Dick” and the teacher insisted that all those pages about “white” and “whiteness” were symbolic and that the whale himself was meant to be a metaphor. We were stunned, disbelieving, and could hardly believe our ears. I still remember the mutterings in the hall afterwards—”he sure knows how to ruin a good story” and “symbolism? Who ever heard of such a thing?”