Her flawless, golden brown complexion was an unlikely canvas for an almost expressionless face. Large-rimmed glasses framed unnerving brown eyes.
It was the ’80s, the advent of power dressing. Appearing much taller than her real height of five feet and five inches, she wore classic, stylish outfits with larger-than-life shoulder pads and demanded our full respect.
Her knowledge of English literature was impeccable. The manner of speaking was confident and solid. No one wanted to raise her hands to answer her question for fear of making a mistake. With her, you were either right or wrong, no excuses.
When she walked down the hallway, the students moved aside one by one, like the parting of the Red Sea. And as she passed, she would give you that familiar glare as if telling you, “Oh, you better do well in my class.” She was every inch intimidating.
Ms Lou Leonardia was my college professor. At the time, when the term “terror” was used to describe a teacher, she was one, and she knew it. Yet, she never called us names, used foul language or punished us in any physical way. She maintained her good breeding, and valued dignity and pride of work.
I felt threatened at first, but later on was so challenged that whenever she asked a question, I would readily raise my hand and see how she would react. I knew that if I was able to manage it, I would have seen beyond that daunting facade and paid more attention to the lesson.
She became a most unforgettable teacher, and her subject became my favorite. Some might find it odd that the professor most students found the hardest to crack is the one who would be the most memorable, but I am sure I’m not alone in that.
I now have two teenage sons. And whenever we talk about their school and studies, there are a few times they ask why some teachers are so difficult and seem to love giving them a hard time. I would answer, “Your teacher is just challenging you, because she knows you can be better.” They reply, “You’re just saying that because you’re a teacher, too.”
“Exactly, but that doesn’t mean I’m on their side. I’m on your side, too. Learning can be hard because it puts new ideas in your brain. And since your brain is still developing, it needs these new ideas to be stronger. That, my loves, is why you’re in school. We also have to understand why a teacher chooses to be strict or lenient. But in the end, difficult teacher or not, it will always depend on you. Would you rather know nothing, or know much more?”
One of them shook his head and said, “But we all did our best and he still wasn’t happy with what we presented. It’s so frustrating.”
“Are you frustrated with the teacher or what you are learning? Think about it, because if you’re frustrated with your teacher, no one wins. Your teacher will just be there for some time, but the lessons you will learn are like building blocks for your future.
“Teachers are there to be instruments for your learning, too. And the best teachers look past what is written in textbooks. They go as far as thinking about how your learning today can affect your future. They also see how you deal with pressure, express yourself verbally, evaluate situations, approach problems, accept mistakes and find solutions.
“If you look at it, these are things you have to learn in real life. Plus the fact that in your case, can you imagine them being in a roomful of teenagers to teach?”
Mark and I laughed because he got the point, and replied, “So that’s why I see them like second parents.”
I smiled and said, “Yes, be thankful for having them. Not everyone can be teachers; it’s really a tough job, you know. And they will always hope for the best for you.”
Teachers, too, are challenged to make students comprehend the value of what they are receiving, since they are tasked with developing so many young minds. But they love their jobs, and although they know that the service they give the youth might be left unnoticed, they find fulfillment in the knowledge that somehow they have been part of their lives, and had learned much, too, along the way.
In my professor’s case, she knew that we could deliver more than what we thought we could. There are many approaches to teaching, and so Ma’am Lou chose to play the part of the villain who brought out the hero in all of us. And she never gave up.
But then again, we choose whether we want to be heroes or bystanders. In any case, teachers are supposed to challenge you, as much as life does. If everything was easy, you would have learned nothing.
To all teachers, I salute you. Your service to our children is as valuable as life itself. Besides us parents, you are role models for our children.
I hope that we can also remind our sons and daughters to thank you, because no matter what behavior you have shown them, be it kindness, thoughtfulness, understanding, and even strictness, you have in one way or another have given them a taste of the kind of people they will meet in their lifetime.
As responsible adults, we will not forget that we are also on our own journeys. In our world full of distractions, which the vulnerable minds of our youth are exposed to, let us see it fit to approach them in a manner that will welcome and inspire, rather than alienate them from the priceless gift of education.
From my own experience, I understand that balancing our personal and professional lives does test us. But it is our test, not theirs. And as we empower the youth to become true and honorable leaders in the future, we, too, enable ourselves to become more than just the ordinary people these children encounter in their lives—just like Ma’am Lou.