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WRY TOAST: Memorable teachers spring to mind in the fall

By Edie Gross, The Free Lance-Star

EVERY FALL, as school  gets into  swing, I think about some of the more memorable teachers I’ve had over the years.

Coach Brown often rises to the top of that list, not because he was one of my favorite teachers—he most certainly wasn’t—but because he was one of the more infamous ones.

Coach Brown was my driver’s ed instructor during my junior year of high school.

About a week into the class, he stopped by my desk, gave me a hard stare and declared, “You know, redheaded women make the worst drivers.”

I’m not sure how he came by that information. Google wasn’t even invented yet, and our vintage 1960s-era textbook didn’t have any color photos so you couldn’t differentiate the bad redheaded drivers from the bad brunettes.

When we’d practice our techniques on the driving range next to the high school, we had to keep our car radios tuned to the Coach Brown station so he could bark at us from a nearby tower via a microphone.

You’d be attempting a highly complicated reverse serpentine through a phalanx of orange cones when you’d hear his unmistakable Southern drawl ooze from the car’s speakers: “Gray Cavalier, what’re you doin’?”

At any given moment there’d be about a half-dozen of us driving around the range, and because the insides of these “practice” cars never matched the outsides, we’d all be wondering the same thing: Am I in the gray Cavalier?

It was important to figure that out before Coach Brown got agitated enough to climb down from the tower, amble onto the course and dress you down in person.

For the record, Coach Brown, despite your dire prediction, I’ve maintained a spotless driving history—if for no other reason than to prove you wrong.

Not all my teachers were quite as judgmental. I had Mrs. Johnson for kindergarten. I liked her because she didn’t make fun of me when I told her I had an ear infection on my finger. In those days, I thought any infection—regardless of its location—was called “an earinfection.”

I was also convinced, and still am, that when she wasn’t busy preventing us from eating glue, she was moonlighting as Wonder Woman.

Naturally, I based this assumption on irrefutable evidence: Her hair was the same length, color and thickness as Wonder Woman’s.

I was pretty certain that after she escorted the last of her charges to their parents’ cars in the afternoon, she’d duck behind the school building, whirl around real fast like Lynda Carter and come bounding out a few moments later in star-spangled Underoos complete with bullet-proof wrist cuffs and a lasso on her hip—just in time to star in my favorite after-school program.

My favorite teacher of all time was probably Mrs. Rutkin, who first suggested I might have a future as a storyteller.

Considering how bad my handwriting was (and still is), it took a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears—not to mention considerable vision loss—for her to arrive at that conclusion.

Also, she made us feel like big shots by reading us “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” even though we were only third-graders.

Mrs. Katsikas would have to be a close second. I had her for seventh- and eighth-grade English at Southwood Junior High in Miami. If the Dolphins and Hurricanes football teams won over the weekend, she’d show up on Monday with a smile on her face and a bag full of gummy bears to share.

If they lost, you could count on a pop vocabulary quiz. Luckily, it was the early ’80s and both teams were playing pretty well, so gummy bears outnumbered quizzes both years.

In college, I was lucky enough to have Professor Jean Chance for two journalism classes. I probably learned more from her in five minutes than from all the rest of my instructors combined.

She was a no-nonsense sort who didn’t suffer fools or ill-prepared students. I’ve dumped most of my college notebooks over the years, but I’ve held onto my notes from her classes—mostly out of a longstanding fear that she still has the power to call on me, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to be ready.

My teachers aren’t the only ones with legendary status in our household.

My stepson had Mrs. Dodge for second grade at Garrisonville Elementary in North Stafford. That was three years ago, and we still invoke her name with a reverence usually reserved for holy saints and high-quality, black-market chocolate.

She was, and likely still is, the Kid Whisperer.

The same could be said of my niece’s first-grade teacher at Hugh Mercer Elementary, the unflappable Mrs. Hanak.

One day, Mrs. Hanak asked her students to draw pictures of four animals that migrate. After a few moments, my niece raised her hand with a very serious question: Do fairies migrate?

Mrs. Hanak: You know, Claire,  I honestly have no idea.

Claire: Well, can you Google it?

Recognizing that Googling fairies might not be the best use of her time but not wanting to stifle a student’s learning potential, Mrs. Hanak responded brilliantly: Well, Claire, in your world do fairies migrate?

After careful consideration, Claire decided they did.

I’ve used that “in your world” context quite a few times since, though I tend to be considerably more sarcastic than Mrs. Hanak ever was, as in “In your world, do dirty clothes just pick themselves up and put themselves in the hamper?”

For years, I’ve lived in the shadow of Mrs. Krusa, my husband’s kindergarten teacher—and his first love.

He doesn’t remember what she looked like or the sound of her voice. What he does remember is that after he split his lip climbing on the playground slide, Mrs. Krusa bundled him into her pickup truck and drove him to the emergency room for stitches.

On the way there, he fished a silver dollar out of the crease in her white vinyl seats, and she let him keep it—pretty generous considering that a public school teacher in 1975 (or any other year for that matter) probably didn’t make much more than that a month.

As memorable as the event was for my husband, I can’t imagine a teacher being allowed to drive a student anywhere nowadays, let alone to the ER for stitches.

Then again, maybe if she’s not a redheaded driver, it’d be OK.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428