All of the sophomore boys knew: Ms. Dewey was not to be trifled with. In my memory she stands about 5’2”, though it’s possible she was taller. Whatever her exact height, she was a slight woman, but she had a look that could stop you in your tracks. The Dewey glare was the stuff of legend, and we quickly came to realize that the glare was actually a warning. Only a fool would persist after receiving it, and if by chance she had to open her mouth to put a stop to your foolishness, the worst thing one could do was attempt to match wits with her. Her wits—unlike yours—were razor-sharp, and when challenged, she took no prisoners. Sometimes, you would see a friend in the hallway between classes, and from his downcast eyes and mopey walk, you just knew. He had run afoul of Dewey.
I start with this description because to understand the impact that Elaine Dewey had on me, I think it’s essential to understand this side of her. But it’s also important to note that she had a wonderful sense of humor and a laugh that, despite her diminutive size, could fill a room. I remember her, more than any of my other high school teachers, beginning class on Mondays by asking us about our weekends and regularly sharing what she called “cocktail party information.” Know this stuff, she would say, so you don’t end up looking stupid someday. She was tough, but it was also clear that she cared.
One of my strongest memories from sophomore English was her telling us that she was a competitive powerlifter—and a champion powerlifter at that. When she was feeling mirthful, a clearly distinguishable form of the glare might also be accompanied by a snarling but only semi-serious threat: “I could bench press you.” We believed her. Amongst 15 year-olds with meathead tendencies, this provided instant credibility. Looking back, I wonder if this biographical tidbit was true. I have no specific reason to doubt it, except that as a teacher, I’ve come to realize the power of a little mystery. I’ve never told my students a lie about myself, but they have at times chosen to believe myths that I did not see fit to correct.
With one exception (more on that later), I don’t ever recall having a one-on-one conversation with Ms. Dewey during my time as a student. Her class was not my favorite (it was hard), but more than any other teacher I ever had, Elaine Dewey changed my life.
First and foremost, she taught me to write. Of course, I already knew the basics when I got to English 10, but Ms. Dewey taught me to sweat the details—to revise, and revise again, until the words fit together just the way I wanted them to. This, I have come to know, is what writing really is. The best writers do not simply have a gift; they have a work ethic. Ms. Dewey drilled us on the parts of speech, made us diagram sentences until we were blue in the face, and assigned us the longest essay we had ever written to that point. However, she also let us choose the topic: I wrote about John Rocker and his First Amendment right to voice his deplorable views. (It seems I was a civil libertarian even from an early age.)
I actually believe that I do my best thinking through writing. (I have tried to impress upon my students this benefit of writing, but it has negative consequences, too. Occasionally, an e-mail that should probably be 2-3 sentences can sometimes take me an hour to write as I end up going through several revisions… but at the end of that hour, I’ve got an e-mail that I’m damn proud of.) Though I don’t do it as often as I would like, I have come to love writing, and without Ms. Dewey’s class, I’m not sure that would have happened.
Ms. Dewey’s most powerful lesson, though, came two years after I took her class. By that time, she had moved into an administrative job, but she remained the faculty sponsor of the National Honor Society. About midway through my senior year, when I had already been admitted to college, I started to slack off. I enjoyed making people laugh, and with the pressure of college decisions off my shoulders, I began to relish the role of class clown. I did enough to keep my grades decent, but I also did stupid things to make sure everyone knew that I didn’t really care that much about school.
My physics teacher, Mrs. Friel, bore the brunt of my nonsense. Once, I opened the window of our first-floor classroom and snuck out while we watched a movie. I walked all the way around the school to the front door, and straight back to Mrs. Friel’s room. (I was rebellious… but only a little bit.) When I walked in, Mrs. Friel said, “I don’t remember giving you permission to leave!” I nodded at the window and said, “You didn’t.” My classmates loved it; Mrs. Friel, not so much. Another time, I snuck in the same window during my lunch period and sat in the back of the room talking with a friend during his class. Several minutes passed, and when Mrs. Friel finally noticed me, she yelled (angrier than I had ever seen her), “Matt! Get out!” So I went right back out the window. I didn’t mean any disrespect by my actions, but they clearly showed a lack of respect.
As these kinds of shenanigans began to pile up, I received a note from Ms. Dewey out of the blue, instructing me to report to her office after school. Uh oh. I knew immediately that I was in trouble, though I did not (in my thick-skulled adolescence) necessarily understand what exactly had caused this.
When I walked into Ms. Dewey’s office, I was expecting the glare. To my surprise, I didn’t get it right away. She was working on something and, barely looking up, said, “Have a seat.” She continued working. This was strange. It made me think that perhaps I was wrong; perhaps I wasn’t in trouble at all. The longer I sat there, the more I convinced myself. Finally, she put down her pen and looked up. “I assume you know why you’re here,” she said with a smile.
She was smiling! I was right! Maybe this was actually a good meeting! She was going to congratulate me for getting into my top college early decision!
“No, ma’am,” I said. (After moving to Pennsylvania, I had more or less stopped using ma’am and sir, but I still reverted instinctively to them in times like these, as if my brain recognize that danger lurked just around the corner.)
And there it was. The glare. The smile vanished, and in an instant, I knew that I had been deceiving myself. This was no congratulatory chat; I had crossed a line, and worse, given the opportunity, I had not owned up to it. “I’ve heard that you’ve been cutting up in class,” she practically spat at me through clenched teeth. (Note: Her teeth were probably not clenched, and there was probably no spitting, but it felt that way to me.)
My sophomore self, accustomed to interacting with Ms. Dewey on a daily basis, would have dropped my head, mumbled an apology, and taken my punishment right then. But my senior self was cocky. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I knew what I should do, and yet my mouth kept moving. Scared out of my wits, I nevertheless attempted to deploy them.
“Who told you that?” I asked incredulously. Attempting to give a little in order to get a lot, I made a partial confession: “I mean, I sometimes joke around in Mrs. Friel’s class, but it’s not—”
Her eyes narrowed and she cut me off. “I’ve heard it from three different teachers. Word is, you’ve been acting like a jerk ever since you got into U-V-A.”
I dropped my head. I mumbled an apology. I took my punishment.
In that five-minute conversation, Ms. Dewey set me on a different path. I don’t think I would have framed it this way then, but Ms. Dewey saw through my facade and cut me down to size. I have come to realize, over time, that pride is one of my vices, and looking back, Ms. Dewey was telling me as much. “You’re no better than anyone else,” she told me without ever saying those words. My actions were disrespectful of my teachers, and deep down, I knew that, even if I was too self-absorbed at that point to realize it.
Ms. Dewey told me in characteristically blunt fashion that she thought I was wasting my potential and that it didn’t matter if I was going to a top college if I continued behaving that way. But, if I was willing to swallow my pride, I would have a second chance. I was made to apologize—in person—to each of my teachers. I was made to do additional community service hours. And I was made to understand that if Ms. Dewey so much as heard my name mentioned by another teacher for discipline issues, I would be removed from National Honor Society faster than I could sneak out a classroom window.
Strangely, it was in this moment that I realized how much I cared about Ms. Dewey’s opinion. Just as Ms. Dewey wore a “mask” of toughness, I cultivated a “devil-may-care” persona. In that moment, though, I realized that I cared. As terrified as I was (especially of my parents finding out), I remember being most upset about the fact that I had let Ms. Dewey down. I’m sure that I was not a perfect angel for the remainder of my senior year, but I was definitely more self-aware.
These days, when my non-teacher friends ask me about classroom discipline, I tell them that it’s the students who are most like me who give me the biggest headaches—the ones who are capable but either don’t care or, worse, try to turn everything into a joke. Those are often the ones I butt heads with, and when I do, I am conscious of Ms. Dewey’s influence on me. (When I went back to my high school to visit in college, I remember telling one of my teachers that I had decided to pursue a career in the classroom. “You know, Matt,” she said with a chuckle. “You reap what you sow.” Truer words were never spoken.)
I don’t know if I pull off the glare as well as Ms. Dewey did, but I am not above a show of righteous anger at times. Even so, I try to leave room for the second chance. I certainly felt judged by Ms. Dewey in that moment, but I needed to. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing her, but I was too arrogant and self-absorbed at 17 to recognize it on my own. Still, I would hate to think that she formed her lasting opinion of me in that moment.
In those challenging conversations, which happen all the time between teachers and students, I try to keep this in mind. Much is made of “character education” these days, and there are entire “character curricula” available for purchase. There is a place for well-designed programs like these, but at the end of the day, though, character education comes down to individual teachers setting a high standard of appropriate behavior and caring enough about their students to hold them to it.
That’s what Ms. Dewey taught me. And that’s why I still revere her, almost 20 years later.
That’s also why I revised this post many (too many) times before finally pressing “Publish.”