Thursday, November 12, 2009

"A" Student

I was a bit wild during my high school years and ended up going to a great many schools until I finally managed to earn that elusive high school diploma. More about that another time, perhaps, but for today, I want to talk about my favorite teacher at the last school I attended, The University School, which was located in Shadyside, in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania.

The name of the school is loftier than it sounds. I was told by the school's secretary that one year, the students were asked to submit their choice of name for the school, and this name, The University School, was chosen as the name most likely to lend academic cachet to the school. Not that it deserved any as such, serving as it did to provide a modicum of education to kids who were the dregs of society. The students at the school were kids who had been kicked out of every high school system known to man and then some.

By the time I was enrolled there, I didn't have much choice in the matter of which school I would attend. My poor beleaguered mommy was at her wits' end with me, for getting kicked out of school after school. Since three of the schools I had attended were Orthodox Jewish parochial schools, my mother decided that the culprit wasn't me so much as those schools and their particular brand of religion which became more and more odious to her as I became wilder and wilder.

In retrospect, I think the trouble with me came down to one or two learning disabilities, but they didn't know about ADD or discalculia in those days--what I think was wrong. My mother pooh-poohs this idea and I respect her a great deal, so who knows? But going to The University School was a scary experience for me. Even though I was wild compared to Orthodox Jewish parochial school kids, I was as innocent as the driven snow compared to the kids who attended The University school. Those kids were BAD. They'd spent time in court rooms and in "Juvie."

I tried to keep to myself as much as possible, which was pretty easy. The school was different in that all classes were taught one on one, teacher to student. The school was an old home that had been chopped up into cubicles. The kids traveled from cube to cube for classes.

At the time I attended the school, I was trying very hard to conform to traditional Halachic Judaism in terms of my dress code and actions. If that sounds contradictory, so be it. I was wild at heart, but spiritual in my soul, and Yiddishkeit spoke to me. It wasn't easy getting the two to listen to each other and is still at times a great struggle for me.

At any rate, the kids thought I was pretty strange coming to school in skirts and long-sleeved tops, ritually washing my hands in the water fountain before partaking of my sandwich, while they were all snorting coke and doing "'ludes" during lunch break. I think I enjoyed being different and that this was just my particular brand of weird adolescent rebellion. Not that I was as pure as the driven snow, but to those kids, I represented something like those television Evangelists and was a laughable figure.

At any rate, on my first day at the school, following the schedule I had been issued, I walked into Dr. Prine's classroom. Dr. Prine was a very old man. He must have been in his 80's at the time I attended his classes. In fact, I know he was, because he talked once about his memories of WWI. The public school system would never have allowed him to teach at that age, but The University School, was private.

All I know is that when I saw that my teacher was elderly, I remembered the Torah precept about honoring the elderly, including the non-Jewish elderly. I determined then and there, that I would honor this man, no matter what.

Dr. Prine was my math and physics teacher. These are subjects at which I do not acquit myself well (scroll back up--I still think I have discalculia--an inability to relate to numbers and math). But bless me, I tried. Even though my performance was dismal, Dr. Prine never became frustrated with my work. He was kind, soft-spoken, and very patient.

My reward for being polite and for being a failure at math and science was found in being Dr. Prine's audience at the end of what he deemed was enough learning for that particular hour. He would tell me about the old days and his achievements, about a bridge he designed in the 1930's that was still standing. He called me "Barbie," a nickname for my English name which I detested, but I never protested. He told me that he had a granddaughter named Barbie.

My test scores were low, so I was surprised when I received my report card and saw that Dr. Prine had given me an "A." He knew I was puzzled and so he explained, "You may not be so talented at math or science, but as far as I'm concerned, you are the best student in this school."

I realized then, what a trial it must have been for this quiet, brilliant old man to have to teach the ruffian student body at that school. I imagined them ignoring him as he taught, putting their shoes up on the desk, being rude, coming to classes stoned out of their gourds. It hurt me to the core on his behalf. I really liked this man, more than just about any teacher I'd ever had in school. Maybe that's because I had worked so hard at listening and being polite, so that I got a taste of the human being inside the teacher's clothing.

I married my husband less than a year after my graduation and soon found myself expecting my first child. When my little girl was about half a year old, my mother sent me a newspaper clipping. It was an obituary for Dr. Prine. I saw that the obituary was about a year old. I asked my mother about the delay and she told me she didn't want to distress me with news of Dr. Prine's death during my pregnancy, because she knew how much I had cared for the old man.

I think that learning to be still and listen to Dr. Prine held me in good stead in all my relationships until now, and especially with the elderly. I learned not to speak about myself and to really listen and learn from other people. Perhaps I really did earn that perfect grade.

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