An article published in the St. Petersburg Times today brought back a vivid and unpleasant memory.
When I was a student at East Lake High in the early ’90s, the most notorious and reviled teacher at our school was Ms. Whipple. She was legendary. She taught English at several grade levels, and every student feared seeing her name on his class schedule. It was seen as a sort of death sentence. For those poor souls assigned to Ms. Whipple’s class, each day brought some new agony. I know because I was assigned to Ms. Whipple’s English class on my first day of tenth grade.
Some tales of awful teachers are pure myth. That is, you may find that an infamous teacher is, in truth, simply tough but fair, or even nice. Ms. Whipple was neither. Her reputation was earned. I learned this the first day. She carried herself with a degree of haughty scorn that, in and of itself, made her unlikeable. Add to that a level of verbal cruelty to students that occasionally bordered on sadistic, and it became clear why she was so despised. I felt at the time that nobody who enjoyed human society could act that way.
Ms. Whipple’s rules were bizarre and unreasonable, to the extent that following them proved difficult by mere virtue of their incomprehensibility. If one wrote his name on the wrong line on his paper, or put her name in the wrong place relative to the date, he could be sure to receive an embarrassing public reprimand. She seemed impossible to satisfy. Her assignments were simply stupid, and I found it difficult to not feel that if something was not worth doing, it was certainly not worth doing well.
The one instance I can recall of her assigning a straightforward and traditional task cemented her reputation in my mind. We were to write a book report. Fair enough. As she went around the room we were asked what book we would like to write about, but when I told her my choice she replied, “that’s too hard for you”, and chose another title for me. Now, if it had been any other teacher I might have been humiliated at, in essence, being told I was dumb. But I didn’t respect her enough to care. I would like think we all understood that Ms. Whipple’s opinions were not a true reflection of our merits, and that she was, in essence, just a sadistic bully whose abuse reflected her own self-conscious shortcomings. But I must regretfully acknowledge that some of my classmates were genuinely hurt by the frequent put-downs.
After about six weeks of suffering, we were surprised one morning by a visit from a school administrator who told us that he was sorry, but we were all, for an undisclosed reason, being moved to another English teacher’s class. The room burst into frantic and sustained applause. Many students who, moments before, had been the most silent, frightened victims of Ms. Whipple’s cruelty, now openly cursed her, and shouted at her on their way out of the room. The vehemence of this verbal retribution was so extreme that I almost pitied her. I said nothing, but I certainly participated in the jubilant rejoicing.
Perhaps a year later, a close friend and I played an embarrassing and somewhat gross (though not dangerous) practical joke on Ms. Whipple. Several of her students watched us prepare our revenge and observed as the childish prank unfolded. These witnesses could easily have identified us and turned us in, but none ever did. They no doubt took some satisfaction at seeing their tormentor receive a taste of her own bitter medicine.
In my nearly twenty-year academic career, Ms. Whipple stands out as the worst teacher I ever had.