Monday, September 12, 2005

Feeling Small

No, this isn't about losing weight, and it's pretty long.

A hot, prickly feeling of shame spread from the top of Harry's head all the way down his body. Dumbledore had not raised his voice, he did not even sound angry, but Harry would have preferred him to yell; this cold disappointment was worse than anything.
                       —Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 428

I don't think I ever heard my High School Speech teacher, Janice Caldwell, raise her voice. She never had to. Mrs. Caldwell was one of those teachers whom everyone respected. In those days, it seemed that most of the students still cared what teachers thought of them. That was especially true regarding students and Mrs. Caldwell.

Mrs. Caldwell may not have ever yelled, but she certainly knew how to express her displeasure. Whenever a student behaved inappropriately, she would not berate or chastise. Instead, a hurt look would grow on her face, and she would say, "I'm very disappointed in you." The words were always the same. The reaction was usually the same, too.

My contact with Mrs. Caldwell began my Sophomore year. It was that year that I first competed in Speech tournaments. Mrs. Caldwell was also the Assistant Director for our competition One-Act play. Because of my course schedule, I was not able to fit Speech class in until my Senior year. It is a point of pride for me that I was the first person to obtain a grade of "A+" in Mrs. Caldwell's class. School generally came easy to me, but I made a little extra effort in Speech class. There's just something about Mrs. Caldwell that made students want to please her.

During that year, one of our units was Cross-Examination team Debate. The class was set up in an elimination tournament. Fifteen teams of two contended for classroom glory. The tournament was single-elimination (except for one of the first seven teams defeated; that team was randomly selected to compete in the first round again against the fifteenth team), so the pressure was immense. My partner, Kim Appleton, and I were paired up against Shelly Scarborough and Jennifer Raynes. They were the Affirmative. The topic being debated was:

Resolved: That the Federal Government should enact a comprehensive policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.

****At this point, you are either very impressed or very scared that I still remember that after almost twenty years.****

Shelly and Jennifer pulled out a plan to mandate Fluoridation of all public water supplies in the U.S. Now, Kim and I had all kinds of evidence about the water table, ground water, lakes, rivers, Superfund, and the like, but we had not card one about fluoride. I told Kim our only hope was to go after Topicality, which is an issue related to whether the plan really fits the stated topic.

The Judge, who was the school's Drama Teacher, voted for Kim and me on the Topicality issue. The team of Appleton and Scott were never seriously challenged in the next three Rounds and won the Tournament handily.

However, going back to the day of Round 1, at lunch that day I was up in Mrs. Caldwell's classroom. She told me that she thought the other team's plan was topical and that, in her opinion, we should have lost the round. I replied that we were caught completely by surprise, so we had to "BS our way through the Round." Mrs. Caldwell looked at me and asked if I knew the meaning of what I had just said. At that moment, if I could have hit a magic "Rewind" button, I would have, but it was too late. I told Mrs. Caldwell that yes, I knew what "BS" stood for, but I didn't really mean those words, which was at least consciously true.

Mrs. Caldwell gave me a brief lecture about choosing words carefully, especially as a Christian who desired to be a positive example for my classmates. I sat there and took my medicine hoping it would be over quickly. Mrs. Caldwell spoke again, quietly and calmly, "I'm very disappointed in you." Since the Rewind button was nowhere to be found, I started wishing for a hole in which to hide. It did not need to be a big hole either because I only felt about two inches tall.

After that, as further testament to Mrs. Caldwell's greatness, there was no lingering condemnation from her. She had expressed her displeasure and then moved on. I have communicated with Mrs. Caldwell occasionally over the years, but it's been a while since the last time. She was one of those great teachers who leaves a lasting impression, and I am a better person for having known her.


mom said...

true confession time......i printed this and sent it to Janice; hope you don't mind....thought it was such a nice tribute to such a lovely lady that i thought she should see it

Kim said...

Gotta tell you, I am really scared that you remember all those details about our debate! That was the only six weeks in that class that I received a B. Our team held up because of you, not me. Quite frankly, I did not understand one word of what the resolution meant. I didn't even know what an aquifer was at the time! How sad is that! But one thing I do remember is that Mrs. Caldwell was truly one of the greatest examples of what a Christian woman should be. I join you in honoring her for the great lady that she was then and is now.