Artist's rendition of what Ms. Vasbinder might look like today
I said aloud in the car yesterday that I thought I might
write a blog about the crappiest teacher I ever had. My 11 year old son asked
me “what if she sees it?” with concern in his voice. And it reminded me of just
how I felt when I was in her class. It reminded me of a time when I, too,
feared the judgment and respected the opinion of any person who the school
district assigned to stand in front any class I was enrolled in. His question
reminded me of a time in which I might be scrambling to reword the previous
sentence because it ends in a preposition for fear of the dreaded red mark!
But a lot of that changed in 8th grade and red
marks be damned! Maybe it was because I was beginning to come of age. Maybe
that was when I transitioned from shy little guy to obnoxious goofball. Or
maybe, just maybe, I began to dole out respect to teachers based on their
character and teaching ability simply because I had to endure a year with Ms.Vasbinder…a lonely, chain-smoking bar-fly whose hypocrisy knew no bounds.
I’m pretty frequent with the humble-brags and here’s
another: I was one of those kids in all the advanced classes (until my junior
year in high school when I became too lazy to yearn for this thing the
grown-ups called ‘achievement’). In 7th grade the advanced Language
Arts was taught by Mr. Fuller. He was a nice enough guy. We all liked him. And
we envied the hell out of him because he was totally dating Ms. Weber whose
classroom shared a door with his. And Ms. Weber made your imagination run a
little wild because you were a 12 year old boy and she was your basketball
What was I saying? Oh, right…most of us did just fine in Mr.
Fuller’s advanced LA class and were moved along the following year to 8th
grade advanced LA class. Where we were introduced to…DUN DUN-DUNNNNNNN!...Ms.
Vasbinder…aka The V.
I wish I could tell you my first impression of her, but
there were a lot of teachers at Rowe Jr. High and the day I met her I probably
met 6 other teachers. What I can tell you looking back is that she had a very
raspy voice, she smelled of cigarettes and she ALWAYS wore what was either an oversized
sweater or an undersized knitted dress with stretch pants (yes, I know this is now fashionable with leggings replacing stretch pants, but I can assure you that in 1993 it wasn't and it wasn't flattering for her).
It’s been so many years that I can’t remember too many details,
but I can tell you this with certainty: The V did not like men.
One of our term-long study units was on sexism. And there
are, of course, many many many valid points to be made on that subject. But it
was clear from the beginning that Ms. Vasbinder wasn’t teaching this class to
make kids aware of and to recognize sexism. The V was speaking directly to the
girls in the class and leaving the boys to sit aside as bystanders. I would
give you examples, but this was 25 years ago and most have faded away. What I
can tell you is that instead of creating an environment of equality in her
classroom she clearly was building a female-empowerment space to intentionally ostracize
the boys. From a distance you might see that as constructive in a creative way
that flips social convention on its ear with a larger purpose creating a new
perspective on gender relations. But I’ll tell you this, (insert fart noise
here) it wasn’t. In fact, the other class (there were two advanced classes) had
a male revolt of sorts. They turned the entire session on its ear and wrote about the objectification of men through
song/media/advertising. As for me and my class? Us guys just whimpered, cowered and conformed.
The three units I remember studying in the V’s class were 1)
Sexism 2) The Holocaust and 3) Discrimination. All I remember about the
Holocaust section was that The V encouraged all the girls in the class to
openly weep and sob with her while watching videos. They were incredibly sad
videos but the weeping and wailing made me just want to leave. Which I did the
moment the bell rang. On my way out the door I noticed The V hugging and
consoling her fellow mourners.
The last unit was on discrimination. And this is really the
reason I’m writing this post. You see, there are many types of discrimination
in the world. But when you’re an active life-victim like The V it’s impossible
to fully grasp the larger picture while blinded by your own emotions. The V
assigned a paper. Each of us was to write about a time in our own lives when we
felt we had been discriminated against. Well, to that point…despite being
half-Japanese…I swear to you I couldn’t think of a time I had been discriminated
against on the basis of race, sex, religion. Knowing that the class was mostly
a bunch of white kids from Milwaukie I didn’t know what anyone was going to
write about. I didn’t know many racial slurs at that point in my life. I simply
hadn’t been exposed to it…despite this bleeding heart trying to cram it down my
throat to make me feel guilty about it.
Then it hit me…my topic. You see, in jr. high I had always
felt out of place. I had a solid group of friends but we were not at the top of
the social pecking order. There was clearly a caste system in our jr high, like
most others. And between my horrible hair, crooked teeth, acne, membership in
the band and poor fashion sense (anything neon is cool, right?) I didn’t often
feel great about who I was or where I fit in. So I chose to write about feeling
picked on and belittled by kids who were cooler than I was. And I included my
sister in that group of kids because she hung out with more popular kids than I
did. I wrote that she and others called me names like ‘nerd’ and ‘dork’. It was
hard to write and it was hard to really think about and put into coherent
thoughts. But I wrote it and I turned it in and I was proud that I had at least
dug deep and found a place in my life where I felt there was discrimination. I
could have just made up a story about someone slanting their eyes at me and
calling me names but I’m not the type to fabricate things like that.
I got the paper back with a big, fat D -. I had never had a
D in my life. There were notes all over the paper about how this was not the
assignment. I felt like Ralphie seeing his teacher’s response to his Red Rider
Bee-Bee Gun essay. I had poured my heart into it and it had been rejected...much
like I had felt this school’s social order had done all along.
You probably think that’s the end of the story. You probably
think I’m just whining because I got a bad grade on a paper one time and I
didn’t get along with the teacher. Well I’ll tell you this…that wouldn’t be
worth writing about. What IS worth writing about is this: when I got home from
school my sister was there and one of her friends was over. And this is what my
sister had to say: “Ms. Vasbinder showed me that paper you wrote about me. She
said you were being a whiny little baby and that you deserved an F for writing
it. She said she likes me and she thought I should know you were writing about
Wait, what? I was asked to write about being discriminated
against. I did just that and the authority figure who assigned it took this
paper to the person I wrote was discriminating against me so that together
they could perpetuate the ridicule? I guess it would take 25 more years and the
internet to make it not okay for teachers to bully their students. Because
that’s what The V was. She was a biased, cruel, dirty person who took out the
frustration of her own failed life on select students, most of whom were male.
She was an oversized bully who would have better served society by staying 100
yards from any school yard than by teaching.
I was glad that when I tried to Google her before I wrote
this that a) I couldn’t find her on the internet and b) I couldn’t remember her
And just to prove to myself that The V was a dark soul who
had it out for me I tried a little experiment. I had written a research paper
on the early life of Adolf Hitler as part of her Holocaust unit. She gave me a
B -. I worked my ass off on that paper and she gave me a B -. Two years later I
had to write a paper for my sophomore English class. It had to be a biography.
So I took that B - paper from The V and I turned it in to Ms. Nemes (who, by
the way, was totally dating Mr. Gilbert and made your imagination…). When I got that
paper back it had a big, fat A on it.
And one day I still believe I will walk into a depressing
little alcoholics’ tavern and see a solitary lump at the end of the bar and I’ll
think to myself:
“I think that may be Ms. Vasbinder but it’s hard to tell because of the
glare of the neon lights reflecting off her shiny, balding head.”