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JENKINS: If you can read this, you should thank a teacher

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

In these times of falling test scores, cheating scandals, and budget crises, public school teachers have become convenient scapegoats — especially among certain right-wing pundits and politicians. Which seems odd, because most of the teachers I know are pretty conservative, God-fearing folks.

Then again, teachers aren’t usually listening to morning talk radio. I suppose that makes them fair game.

It’s true that our educational system nationwide has, um, issues, and it’s easy to blame teachers. I would argue, however, that the responsibility falls mostly on parents and, to a lesser extent, on the education establishment: district-level administration, state and national education departments, teachers’ unions. Collectively, such bodies tend to encourage conformity while squelching creativity and initiative.

But individual teachers are, as far as I’m concerned, the heroes of this story.

I know I’ll never forget Ms. (or as we said back then, “Miss”) Wharton, whom I spent an entire summer calling “Miss Warthog.” Then I showed up for fourth grade and discovered that she was young and beautiful as well as smart and nice. The day her fiancé sent a dozen roses to our classroom was among the darkest of my life.

Or Walter Bohm, who taught history and coached my eighth-grade basketball team. Coach Bohm once bragged that, having pitched in the minor leagues, he could peg a student in the back of the room with a chalkboard eraser. Turned out he could.

Or Mrs. Lewis, who taught AP psychology and instilled in me a passion to become a therapist — that is, until I went off to college, spent three semesters in the psych program, and discovered that all my professors were nuts.

My kids have also had great experiences with teachers, one of which I’ll share briefly.

My middle son was in kindergarten when we moved back to Georgia from a small town in rural Alabama. Having had problems selling our house there — not a lot of people moving into small towns in rural Alabama — we didn’t get fully settled here until March.

From his first day at his new school, it was obvious my son was way behind, especially in reading. (Partly our fault, I know.) But Mrs. Djakowski made him her special project.

Within two months, he had caught up to the rest of the class. The next year Mrs. Lowery took over and, by the end of first grade, he was reading on a third-grade level.

OK, 10 years later he’s still reading on a third grade level, but still, it’s a nice story. (Just kidding, son.)

Anyway, I’ll always be grateful to Mrs. Djakowski and Mrs. Lowery, just as I’ll always be grateful to Miss Wharton, Coach Bohm, and Mrs. Lewis. So don’t tell me, pundits and politicians, that teachers are the problem. They’re the solution. Just provide them with an adequate phone booth and let them do their hero thing.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English and director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.