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Consulting editor, historian, poet and author of several books. For more information, click here or see www.midlandauthors.com.
Journalist and author of Victims of Justice
© 2015 by Richard Frisbie
The Uncommentator: Story of the Day
Back to Skool...Scuhl...Schule?
January, 2015--When the Chicago Tribune recently front-paged a report about how teachers often lack qualifications for the subjects they teach, I at first nodded assent. That got me thinking about the traits of outstanding teachers I’ve enjoyed.
Sister Florentine was a veteran English teacher, firm about grammar as well as discipline. She once remarked that she never had a problem with large classes. I believe it. In the spring of my eighth grade year, she persuaded most of our class to come to school early in order to have extra time to diagram sentences. She did this partly by making diagraming a game and partly by playing upon our inherent fear of looming high school.
Sister Florentine encouraged me to write, which became my lifelong career. I understand that diagraming sentences has not been much emphasized by schools in recent years, but having worked also as an editor I can say that my diagraming experience has helped me resist the spread of dangling participles and other logical atrocities that increasingly infect prominent publications.
Yes, I said to my wife over breakfast, teachers should know what they’re talking about. Then I happened to think about Mr. Petz
Towards the end of World War II, I was one of many high school students who voluntarily signed up for summer school in order to graduate early before we were drafted. That summer at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, the Jesuits in charge couldn’t immediately find a physics teacher, so they gave us young Mr. Petz, a Jesuit "scholastic," already a member of the order but not yet ordained.
Perhaps, given the times, we were more serious than the usual high school seniors. And we did have a clearly written physics text book. But it was Mr. Petz who made us so absorbed in the principles of the lever, the pulley and the inclined plane that it was actually fun to work out the math involved in simple machines, vectors and similar matters.
Mr. Petz cheerfully admitted that he was only one chapter ahead of the class, but that proved sufficient. Great physicist, no. Natural teacher, yes.
My grasp of basic physics paid off when I returned home from the Navy and got an interesting summer job at the Museum of Science and Industry. As the staff "demonstrator" in the physics hall, at periodic intervals I gave brief lectures based on such exhibits as the two-story Foucault pendulum and the conservation of energy. (Visualize several bowling balls suspended in a row from cables and touching each other. At one end of the row swing back one ball and let it go to bang against the next in the row. At the other end of the row, another ball swings out seemingly by magic while none of the intervening balls moves at all. Kids especially loved doing this.)
We also had a way to replicate Galileo’s famous experiment with gravity involving (it was said) the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He showed that all objects fall at the same rate regardless of weight if they’re heavy enough to overcome the density of the atmosphere.
We had two transparent vacuum tubes, one containing a penny, the other a feather. I would explain the principle, then turn the tubes upside down with a crank. The penny and the feather would fall at the same rate. (How do you say "voila" in Italian?)
But one day the vacuum tubes had somehow leaked overnight. When I turned the crank, the penny shot to the bottom, the feather fluttered down. None of the group of a dozen or so spectators who had gathered to gawk at the demonstration said anything. I have always wondered how many of them thought they had seen the feather drop in sync with the penny because I had said that would happen.
As for myself, I was speechless. I don’t think Mr. Petz could have helped me. We’d had an experienced drama teacher at St. Ignatius, but I hadn’t happened to take his class.
After I got back to college, the University of Arizona attracted Douglas Martin to teach journalism. He had retired as managing editor of the Detroit Free Press because severe arthritis required him to move to a hot dry climate. He had won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his paper’s coverage of a Detroit race riot and one as part of a team of reporters coverage an American Legion convention.
Accustomed to supervising a herd of unruly reporters, he was an excellent teacher: warm and funny, but also strict about journalistic standards. When I graduated, he sent me to fill an
opening at the Douglas (Ariz.) Daily Dispatch like an editor assigning a reporter a beat. When I wearied of living in Douglas and decided to head home to Chicago, he cleared my way for a job there.
No surprise. The Free Press and the Chicago Daily News were both part of the Knight newspaper chain. I don’t what he said about me, but the Daily News hired me a couple of weeks after I got back in town. So I guess after all it is a good thing for teachers not only to know a lot about their subject but also to know a lot of the right people.