A tale of two English teachers
My 9th-grade Advanced English class was an exercise in humility. My teacher, Mr. Hespinhide, was one of those bitter, older men who delighted in making his students miserable. Or at least afraid of him.
He had grey, unruly hair, an equally unkempt beard, and a foul attitude. I think he thought he was being funny most days. He also drove a motorcycle to school.
He was notoriously tough, and getting a good grade in his class was seemingly impossible.
I had always been a decent student. I was nowhere near my big brother’s level of natural talent for acing everything, even AP classes, without studying. But I was what I would call a “dumb” smart kid. I took all of the same classes as the top students, but the achievements of my peers definitely overshadowed mine.
At 14, I still loved to read, and I would still spend every night with a book in hand, reading myself to sleep. My parents took pride in that, never letting in on the fact that they knew my little secret of reading by the light spilling from the hall into my room as I pretended to be sleeping when I was a kid until I was well into adulthood.
I also loved to write. During my middle school career, one of my teachers noticed, and she selected me, as well as my best friend, to attend a young writer’s conference at what would later become Hampton University. We were thrilled to skip school for a day!
But somewhere in the midst of learning how to perfect my grammar skills and writing paragraphs by prescription in that Freshman English class, I lost my enthusiasm for both reading and writing. My parents noticed.
One of my papers came back to me emblazoned with an A, a feat unfathomable from Mr. Hespinhide. It was also plastered with that misogynistic phrase which I’m sure he thought was a compliment: “Not bad, for a girl.” The red ink loudly mocked me.
Seeing that comment, my parents finally made the connection between my waning interest in reading and writing and this teacher. They were livid! I was a bit miffed at his flippant comment as well, but my parents took it to the next level. I was pretty proud of them for doing so, though. (Now that I’m a parent, this is what I would refer to as a Defcon 4 level reaction.)
After many meetings with my school’s administration, Mr. Hespinhide no longer taught Advanced English.
The year was 1989. The 80s were supposed to be a time of female empowerment, with women evolving from the traditional roles in the home. It was the time of giant hair, skirted power suits, and enormous shoulder pads proclaiming our clout in a man’s world. And yet my teacher was still perpetuating the patriarchy.
Boys will be boys. That’s what they said in those days, along with a half-hearted shrug, indicating that nothing can be done about this poor behavior.
Years later, my dad crossed paths with Mr. Hespinhide again. I’m sure my former teacher had been retired for some time, then selling used books and other items at one of those giant traveling flea markets whose ads on TV lured you to a bland convention center in the treasure hunt for epic bargains.
My dad told a story more than once of their encounter, as he talked a potential customer out of buying a book from this horrid person. Words were exchanged, the details of which remain mostly a mystery. I wonder if Mr. Hespinhide knew who he was dealing with.
In my dad’s eyes, I think he’d done his duty in the opportunity for revenge on my behalf not once, but twice. My dad was a good man, but he detested bullies. And this English teacher certainly fit the definition of one.
In my Freshman year in college, I encountered another very challenging English professor. Another teacher who loved to intimidate. Yet another man I felt that I needed to prove myself to. The year was 1992.
He was one of those professors at Longwood that when your friends asked who you had for English, and your answer was Dr. Van Ness, their response was, “Good luck.”
What I thought was going to become Freshman English 2.0: Another Disaster turned out better than anticipated. This teacher wasn’t a bully. Dr. Van Ness simply pushed his students to do their very best. And I earned the only A in both of his sections of Freshman English. I enjoyed the challenge.
We became friends on Facebook years later, and we established a tradition of meeting for a glass of wine during my family’s yearly vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he now lives.
Not only did he reveal to me that he appreciated my writing, but he also shared that he kept my research paper as an example of good work to share with interested students until he retired. I was floored!
On one of our visits, he recalled that I provided the most unusual source for an interview in all of his years of teaching. He required that we conduct an interview to cite as one of our sources. I was writing my paper about the lions of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, and I reached out to National Geographic to see if I could get in contact with one of their writers on this topic.
To my surprise, the source came through! Instead of a family member like most of my peers, my interview was with Nat Geo writer, lion expert, professor, and biologist, Dr. Craig Packer. He was extremely gracious and excited to impart his knowledge. Interviewing him is still one of the highlights of my collegiate career.
Reestablishing this relationship with my college English professor helped me restore my faith in myself. I’d forgotten about the successful student I was in college. He reminded me that I was a good writer. And he, in his own way, convinced me to keep going in my writing endeavors.
He gave me the confidence to step up my writing. In addition to my blog, I became assistant editor of my local run club’s quarterly magazine. I’m also a regular contributor. And now I have a Medium account as well.
What an amazing thing to have a professor who still inspires you, 30 years after your college career is completed!
Maybe Hespinhide’s words were true in his mind. Maybe he expected girls to underperform compared to the boys in his class. But if you underestimate me, I will try my best to prove you wrong. I’m persistent like that.
While the kind of feedback I encountered as a girl in public education in the 80s wouldn’t fly today, at least Mr. Hespinhide left me with a great story to tell.
I’m not just “not bad, for a girl.” I’m a woman returning to my soul as a writer. And, in part, I have Dr. Van Ness to thank for that.
Do you have stories about the teachers you encountered in your life, both great and not so great? I’d love to hear about it!
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.