A couple of my Lincoln Land students were chatting in the back seat of my car recently and the subject of weird teachers came up. ‘Weird’ was their word, not mine. Frankly, I’ve always favored teachers who are just a bit off kilter. One of the kids behind me said that a certain teacher was strange because she insisted on wearing black and navy blue clothing in the same ensemble and this drove my young friend crazy. My goodness sweetheart, if you’d only known some of the characters whom I’ve experienced.
I was exploring an elementary school in Jacksonville one day in preparation for a theater event. Lincoln school maybe? Jefferson? My mind plays tricks. In any case, the principal was showing me around the school when we walked by a classroom that seemed especially lively. I peeked inside the class and saw a gray-haired, lean and lanky teacher standing on her desk. I said standing. On her desk. All the while shouting out something about arithmetic. I asked the principal what the heck was going on. He said, “Oh don’t worry. That’s Mrs. Aufdenkamp. She’s sort of a character.” She was likely in her seventies by then, but there she was, standing on her desk. I’m not sure they make teachers like her any longer.
When I started my teaching career in 1971, Triopia had its share of unique instructors. My unofficial mentor was a fellow named Mueller. We only had three minutes in between class periods, but in that three minutes he could sprint down the hallway to the teacher’s lounge, light a cigarette, get a swig of coffee and run off 30 copies of an English grammar test on one of those old hand-cranked mimeograph machines while puffing on his smoke, making it back to his classroom just as the bell was ringing.
Illinois College (IC) had its share of slightly off-center instructors when I was there. Two professors in the history department would nearly come to blows when they did joint lectures on politics. Professor Zeigler and Professor Lynn were of two distinct viewpoints and they’d often sit in on each other’s lectures to make sure that their fellow instructor wasn’t leading us astray. IC freshmen soon learned that the greatest battles of American history were not fought on the rolling hills of Gettysburg but in the lecture room of Jones Hall.
Then there was the IC chaplain who wrote his master’s dissertation based on the philosophy of Playboy magazine. I was always hoping he’d illustrate his lectures with pictures. And to make things even more interesting, he moonlighted as the weatherman on Jacksonville’s ill-fated ‘Channel 14’ television station. One of his most memorable broadcasts occurred on the day when he turned to his weather map to find that someone had taped the foldout of Miss July right over the Rocky Mountains.
Personally, my most embarrassing moment came when my class was climbing the spiral stairway to the roof of Crispin Hall to observe the stars in the night sky. We each carried our four-inch telescope and star map as we wound our way up the narrow passage. Unfortunately, the lady ahead of me was a bit wider than the staircase and she got herself stuck halfway between Pluto and Mars. I could have endured the sight of that, but when Professor Pilcher instructed me to push on her bottom side to get her up the stairway, I truly earned my astronomy grade.
But by far the most unique teacher I’ve been around was the legendary Don Kemp, who built a reputation as one of the area’s greatest coaches and most … uh … interesting … teachers. He had a magical brain that could turn ordinary words into works of art. “Molecules” became “monocules” and “reticulum” somehow ended up as “rectum.” When Triopia won the state football championship, he announced over the radio that the local fans could meet the returning team on “Jacksonville’s Central Park Plasma.” This is the same guy who sent a player to the scorer’s table to find out what 52’s number was, and who told an errant lineman that he was “running around out there like a man with his chicken cut off.” Don got things almost right and we loved the fact that he never quite said things properly like when he asked his five-man basketball team to play a 2-3-2 defense.
Let’s face it … anyone going into the field of teaching must have at least a half a screw loose to begin with. Let’s not begrudge them an oddity here and there. Perhaps that’s what they need to remain sane.