The Best Worst Teacher Ever

I saw a meme on Facebook today that listed several incidents of terrorism around the world, each carried out by Muslims.  Its point was obvious and hard to argue with.

But there was something missing.  What about the incidents of terrorism that weren’t perpetrated by Muslims?  What about Timothy McVeigh, for example?

In the wake of the terror attack in San Bernardino – where, by the way, I grew up, so its newfound notoriety is very personal to me – the shouting is loud and intense.  Blame Islam, don’t blame Islam, blame guns, don’t blame guns, it was terrorism, it wasn’t terrorism (although I think that one has pretty much been put to rest now).  A lot of noise and so little reasoned discussion.

It took me back to high school.

I was standing in line to register for my tenth grade classes.  Where we lived, tenth grade was the first year of high school, so I was in that illustrious group of kids known as “scrubs” — the initiants who were in turn tormented and mentored (note how close the letters in those words are?  Interesting) by upperclassmen.

We scrubs clustered in little groups, filling out the requisite forms andregistration eyeing one another and the ominous tables that lined the cafeteria where we would get our class schedules.  Those of us who had older siblings knew the scoop – Mr. Drake was cool; if you got him for American history, you scored.  Mr. Taylor for English?  He was tough, but I didn’t worry much about English.  It was my best subject.  As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as a good math class.

The one thing every scrub knew, though, either from a sibling or whispered around that big cafeteria that morning, was just pray you don’t get Mr. Dickey.

Mr. Dickey taught social studies.  Mr. Dickey, the upper classmen would whisper, was a communist.  This was in 1971, and there was a lot of communist paranoia still prevalent at that time.  (I can see some of you guys out there doing the math in your heads.  Really?  Don’t you have something better to do?  I’m old. Let’s leave it at that.)  And even more important to we students, he was The.Worst.Teacher.Ever.

It wasn’t that he didn’t teach you anything.  It’s just that he was sooooo hard.  He made life impossible for you.  He apparently didn’t believe in giving out A’s because no one ever got one in his class.  Or at least that was the rumor.  Mr. Dickey could out-argue anyone on anything.  He could make the class valedictorian look like an idiot.  And he loved doing it.

Let’s face it.  He was just plain scary.   The only way to survive his class was to try to be invisible and hope beyond hope he never called on you.  None of us wanted to see his name on our schedules.

When it was my turn to pick up that little piece of paper that would determine the trajectory of my whole entire life (I was 15; everything was uber dramatic to me), I held my breath.  I gave my name and stuck out my hand.  The woman in charge of the I through L names handed me a card and said, “Next.”  I turned away, took one deep beath, and looked.

First Period:  Social Studies.  Mr. Dickey.

First period?  Seriously?  Yep.  First thing on my first day and every day thereafter, Mr. Dickey.

My life was over.  (Again, the drama.)

Let’s skip ahead a little bit.  Let’s skip past my first-day terror (okay, first week (month?) terror).  Let’s skip to that first time Mr. Dickey called on me.

It came during a discussion of intercontinental ballistic missiles.  It was a few weeks into the course, and I had been successful in being invisible so far.  But this day, my number was up.  As I doodled in my notebook, hoping it looked like I was taking copious notes, and studiously avoided eye contact, I heard that one thing no one in Mr. Dickey’s class ever wanted to hear:  my name on his lips.  Let me tell you, it struck terror into my heart.  It really did.

But here’s the thing.  In the weeks I had been in his class, avoiding eye contact and trying to be invisible, I had also been paying attention.  I had been studying the material, not because I was an awesome student but because social studies is just a fancy name for history, and history was my favorite subject.  And I had been studying Mr. Dickey.

Mr. Dickey would ask a student for his or her opinion on something.  The student would, more often than not, stutter out some vague offering on the subject, and Mr. Dickey would shred it with impeccably logical counter arguments.  In the end, almost always, the student would surrender his or her position and agree that Mr. Dickey was right.

At which point Mr. Dickey would dismiss that student with a disgusted shake of his head, or a derisive laugh, or any number of other humiliating little gestures, and move on to the next victim.

icbmOn this particular day, when Mr. Dickey called out my name and my blood ran cold, the question was whether I thought the United States should negotiate with the USSR to limit the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles produced, and why.

I was fifteen years old.  What did I know, or care, about ICBM’s?  My biggest concern was whether I’d make the first or second string basketball team.  I lived in a little town called San Bernardino, nestled in the foothills of the Southern California mountains by the same name, where nothing overly exciting ever happened – at least not back then.

But I knew I had to answer the question, so I said no, I did not think we should negotiate with Russia.  I did not think we should trust Russia to abide by the terms of any treaty.  We would make ourselves vulnerable to attack and possible destruction if we limited our weapons but Russia did not.

Mr. Dickey then proceeded with a discourse on the possible consequences of a fully nuclear world where there was no trust and no limit to the nuclear weapons on either side, and the likelihood of a trigger-happy finger being on the panic button on one side or the other at some given moment, and the apocalypse that would ensue, and why mutual respect and trust had to start somewhere, and why my attitude was precisely the reason every bad thing that had ever happened anywhere in the history of all mankind had happened.  (That was my perception of his argument, anyway.  Possibly a little over dramatic.)

This is where he expected capitulation and the opportunity to ridicule me. This is where expected capitulation and ridicule.  To be honest, I have no idea how I ever had the nerve to do what I did, because I was not an over-confident kid, and what I really wanted at that moment was to find a hole to crawl into.

Instead, I said something along the lines of, “Well, that’s your opinion.  Mine is, we can’t trust Russia right now and until they prove that we can, we shouldn’t.”

Mr. Dickey looked at me.  He raised his eyebrows.  He pursed his lips.  I thought he was mightily displeased at this high sass from a skinny runt of a girl, and I wanted that hole to crawl into more than ever.  I held his gaze.  Don’t think brave girl gaze-holding here.  Think deer in the headlights.

I couldn’t breathe.  I stared at him.  He stared at me.  The clock ticked loudly.  This went on for ten minutes or maybe an hour.  Okay, the clock didn’t really make any sound at all and it probably went on for about three seconds.  Still.

Then he laughed.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay.  Let’s talk about that.”  We entered into a discussion on what I thought Russia might be able to do to prove itself trustworthy.  Not an argument; a discussion.  The whole class got involved.

Mr. Dickey taught us more than what was in the curriculum.  He taught us to think for ourselves, to formulate opinions and to be prepared to defend them.  He taught us that there were always two sides to an issue and in order to properly understand it, we needed to understand both sides of it, not just the one we liked.  Or the ones that were popular.  Or the ones our parents adhered to.  He taught us that the best way – the only way – to dismantle an opponent’s argument was to know it better than he did.

And he taught us that intelligent discussion requires full disclosure.  Presenting only the facts that support your position is lying.  Worse, it’s insulting the intelligence of your audience.

Yet in today’s world that’s what we see everywhere, all the time.  Statistics mean less than nothing, because they are manipulated to support whatever position they’re being used to support.  People post memes on Facebook that get picked up and reposted as if it’s gospel truth when in fact it’s … well, NOT.  And a simple Google search will tell you it’s not, but no one seems overly interested in actually finding out if it’s true.  They read it, do a fist pump, yell “yeah!” and repost it.

I thought for a long time that conservatives were the worst offenders, because I saw so much of it from people I know on Facebook.  Then, of course, I realized perhaps that was because many of my family and friends are, um, conservative, and theirs are the pages I see.  So I made a point of checking out the pages of more liberal-minded people I know, and lo and behold, conservatives are NOT the only ones who do it.

Isn’t it time we just stopped?  Isn’t it time we took a breath and really thought about what we are saying, and posting, before we did it?  Checked all the facts, then presented them ALL, the ones we liked and the ones that don’t fit our personal ideology quite so well?  Once it’s all out there on the table for everyone to see, we can make a stronger, better case for our position.  Or, if we can’t, maybe we need to rethink that position.

But we won’t be playing hide the ball anymore.  We won’t be trying to convince people by omission.  Instead of two sides each trying to out-shout the other with its own monologue, we’ll be engaging in actual dialogue.  Reasoned discourse.  Something thinking and intelligent people should aspire to.

That’s what Mr. Dickey taught us to do.

My point in all this?

I guess it’s that this world would be a better place if we’d all had Mr. Dickey in tenth grade.


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