Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ms. Menanson

(This is a much longer post than I intended... so I won't burden you with another one for a few days, eh, knowing that you want to really take every single word of mine in and digest it fully)

Any of my fellow citizens of Hudson should know the name of Ms. Menanson.  I have no idea what her first name is, and I doubt very many people do, because she deserves and demands respect enough to just always call her MS. Menanson.  I write about Ms. Menanson today because I wrote down in my calendar that I should go visit her and thank her for what she has done for me in my life, but I've decided against doing that until I actually have something to show for it, which, dear God please, will be before school gets out for next summer.

Ms. Menanson is a high school teacher of literature here in my town.  She also occasionally teaches at some of the community colleges in the area.  Tenth grade English and AP Lit are her courses.  More or less everyone is scared of her because she rarely smiles, is a short but large and imposing figure, is a hard grader and expects a lot, and she has you read and watch Shakespeare constantly.  Apparently in high school Shakespeare equals the greatest challenge known to man.  Thankfully, Ms. Menanson has another side to her that few people know or see. 

Before I entered ninth grade my mother had me start a practice that I'd carry with me throughout the rest of my schooling years.  Ninth grade meant that I'd have a very hard math teacher, Mr. Sullivan, and since my mother wanted me to succeed in math, my best subject, she wanted me to meet him before classes started.  She told me that she just wanted me to become familiar with the classrooms that I'd be going to so I wouldn't get anxious between classes (there was no reason to think I would get anxious.  Problem was that, this practice of visiting classrooms became so ingrained in me that a few years later I did become anxious if I hadn't visited my classrooms at least a day in advance of classes starting).  I met Mr. Sullivan, was instantly afraid of him, joined his Math League as a mathlete so that he'd like me more, and not until many months later did I come to like him (not least of which because, once I got the feel for his methods, I aced just about everything and he started seating me in the back of the class so I could learn extra material and not pay attention to what he was teaching).  My mother, presumably thinking that her plan had worked one year, decided to repeat the process before tenth grade.  So off we went to meet the scary Ms. Menanson. 

On one hand, Ms. Menanson instantly became less frightening to me, and on the other hand our first meeting transformed her into the most terrifying monster imaginable.  The first hand: my mother did all the talking and mentioned that I was/am a Civil War "buff," as people say, and Ms. Menanson thought that was interesting because she is too, and then she talked about the places she's visited, and thus we shared something in common and maybe she could be cool.  Hand two: while talking about the Civil War, she never once smiled or laughed, and I could tell that her knowledge of things far surpassed my own, which was scary to me at the time because it seemed as if she was barely touching the surface of her massive intellect.  At the very least, I started school with her thinking that, though she was frightening and clearly a demanding teacher, that I could use my budding political skills to woo her, most likely by impressing her with my interests and finding more common ground.  Indeed, I would not be wrong.

Before I tell you of how I skirted around Ms. Menanson's harsher side and thereby became extremely thankful for her as a teacher and as a person, affirming who I have now become, let me tell you of how I did not skirt around Ms. Menanson's harsher side.  Or in other words, let me tell you of what I learned from her that I have not been so thankful for, mostly because, before thinking of her the other day, I did not attribute to her.  If it weren't for Ms. Menanson, I would not have found my love for Oscar Wilde, a love of which has shaped me intellectually and as a writer because I have written a very long essay on him that is powerful and unique and worthy of publishing (according to my renowned college professor), all because of Menanson's focus on Shakespeare (who is indeed quite funny, did you know?); if it weren't for Ms. Menanson, I would not have developed any interest at all in poetry which is now one of the more formative characteristics of my writing, even if I don't write quite as much of it anymore.  Most of all, if it weren't for Ms. Menanson, I would not--I repeat--would not have formed the ability to write and, more significantly, think coherently with insight and penetrating understanding, no matter how playful my intellect may be.  I don't mean to say that I have those skills now, only that they goals to which I am constantly striving, and know how to strive to.  Ms. Menanson punished my high school antics severely, and gave me the worst grade on any assignment and in any class, ever.  AP Lit was a complete disaster for me.  But if it weren't for that disaster I wouldn't have learned to read, think, and write well enough to be praised by my college professors of English and philosophy, especially, as a protege--a label that I do not think I am disappointing.  I remember well all the times I stayed after class to ask her why I deserved a certain grade and her raising her arms, and her voice, saying to me, "John, what is the point here?  What's Iago actually saying, actually doing?  What's his purpose in the whole play?  You're missing all of that!  And more, you're not even making an argument!  What is it you think you're doing?!"  Geez almighty did I hate friggin Iago.

As influential as all those things have been to me (indeed, she'd hate that I just used the word "things."  Every time I use the word "thing" I think of her and then get into a long debate with myself whether or not I should clarify what thing), I am most thankful for Ms. Menanson for a reason that might seem entirely silly. 

I opened up another side of Ms. Menanson when I handed in my summer reading reports on day one of tenth grade.  Figuring that I could get away with reading only one serious book, I wrote one of my two reports on a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Mort.  If you don't know Terry Pratchett or Discworld, let me tell you, Discworld is Pratchett's fantasy world of hilarious satire.  Not a serious book at all, nor one that should be written on for summer reading.  Since none of my friends nor any of my parents' friends had heard of Pratchett, I figured Ms. Menanson didn't know either and I could get away with writing a more or less ridiculous report on a ridiculous book.  I was wrong.  When I handed the paper in, Menanson looked at it, then looked at me with eyebrows raised and said, "Terry Pratchett, huh?"  I said, "Yep!" as confidently as I could, but in my head I was thinking, Oh frick, my life is over.  Now she's going to think I'm lazy.  Idiot, idiot, idiot!  These thoughts increased in intensity when I received the report back without a grade the next day but with the words, "See me after class."  This is the conversation that followed, as best as I can remember it.

Menanson: "Surely you read other books during the summer, John?"
Me: "Yeah.  But I liked this one."
Menanson: "I don't care if you liked it, you can't write a summer reading report on Terry Pratchett.  Now take the weekend to write me another report on another book."
Me: "Are you serious??"  Seeing that, indeed, she was serious, I continued, "Okay.  Okay okay.  I will."  I then turned to leave, but she called me back and handed me a newspaper.
Menanson: "Have you read this one yet?"  She was pointing to an advertisement for a new Pratchett Discworld novel, smiling ear to ear.
Me: "No!  I didn't even--I had no idea there were more!  In the cover of the book I read it said it was the last one."
Menanson: "Mort, the last one?  No no, John, there are so  many more!  You're missing out on some great fun!"
Me: "I guess I am.  Wow.  I'm going to ask my mother for more for Christmas, then."
Menanson: "Better do that.  Let me know if she or you can't find any.  You can probably get them on-line easily, but I think I can lend you some if you want."
Me: "Wow, thanks!"
Menanson: "No problem.  Now go read some more and we can talk about which one is the best.  By the way, have you heard of Neil Gaiman?"

I hadn't heard of Neil Gaiman.  I soon would, of course.  And I'd soon realize that Ms. Menanson, serious teacher, actually does have a robust sense of humor; eventually I'd also realize that she's a great teacher, not a hard teacher.  Not long after this conversation, she randomly said this in the middle of class, "I had a strange morning today because my brother called clearly worried.  I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'Oh I had a terrible dream.  I dreamed I was a muffler, and woke up exhausted!'"  There was a brief pause, then I broke out laughing.  No one else did.  Maybe no one else understood the joke, maybe no one else knew Ms. Menanson capable of humor, but everyone looked at me as if I were breaking the code of Menanson seriousness.  Thankfully Ms. Menanson saved me and said to the class, straight-mouthed as ever, "That joke is funny, people."  I soon found humor and mirth in much of what she said and did, and thus began my quest to defend people who espouse dry humors.

I've talked before about how my grandmother got me interested in reading, against my will in a way, and how thankful I am for that and how I wish I could have thanked her before she passed.  The same is true for Ms. Menanson, except hopefully I do not hesitate to thank her before she passes.  Too often scholars and intellects, whatever we mean by that, and especially the students or readers of those scholars and intellects, think that there is no room for humorous or mirthful joy in education, study, intellectual activity, philosophy, poetry, and on and on, that we then ignore the supreme weight and value of thoughtful living.  I gather that most students of Ms. Menanson go through her class missing the comedy in her teaching, in Shakespeare, in poetry, etc. that they then think that Shakespeare, poetry, and etc. are not worthwhile.  Indeed, I'm pretty sure that most students everywhere leave school with that impression.  What a shame!  Because we have not properly learned to see and hear comedy, to respect comedy, or how and when to laugh in the midst of seriousness, we also have not properly learned the necessary art of thoughtful and good living.  What a shame.

What I learned from Ms. Menanson is that, no matter how serious we may be, no matter how serious life may be, no matter how serious the task at hand may be, there is always a place for comedy and humor; we just have to learn how to respect comedy, what its place may be, how to recognize and how to insert comedy.  Terry Pratchett did not belong to my summer reading report, but he did clearly, and has definitely, belonged in my life, as well as that of Ms. Menanson.  For that I am very thankful.

What I learned from Ms. Menanson is that teachers are essential thoughtful and good living, and that we should thank our teachers in showing us.  With all the talk nowadays of good teachers and such I want to make clear that I am not talking like a typical pundit: I don't only mean school teachers.  I mean teachers.  My grandmother was a teacher of mine.  My grandfather and father, who this past weekend taught me how to find, cut, and prepare wood for a furnace are teachers of mine.  My brother is a teacher of mine.  What we need, and need be thankful of, are teachers, in and out of school.  Those who can encourage our interests, teach us the worth found in those interests, teach us how to be good at and good people within those interests, show us which interests are not worthwhile or are destructive and channel our passion into other similar but good and beneficial interests, and teach us all the other skills necessary to make our interests accessible to us (for example, I don't care how good I was/am at math, I was going to need to learn how to read and write well enough anyway for a career mathematically-oriented to be accessible to me), those people are our teachers.  If we want to be good or successful people, we must recognize who those teachers are, flock to them, support them, and always keep them in our memory by thanking them.

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