Constance Holland, A Great Teacher

June 12th, 2007

Let’s take a break from talking about Paris—and the awesome Sopranos finale–to discuss something—or actually, someone– important, shall we? And that’s teachers. Specifically, one teacher.

I feel profoundly lucky to have had a lot of great teachers (and just a few sucky ones), but Mrs. Holland (Connie to her friends…of which I was not one, and of course would never have dared call her that—at least to her face, though all of us called her that behind her back, of course) was one of the greatest.

When I was at Bloomington High School South in the 1980s, Mrs. Holland taught US Government and US History, both mandatory classes for all students. So Mrs. Holland had a mix of both college-bound and “vocational” students in her classes.

But Mrs. Holland didn’t care if you were going to Yale or the Target check-out line after you graduated. She still made everyone take turns reading aloud from the text book in her class. It didn’t bother her if you stumbled over the four syllable words. The fact that there were eleventh graders who’d apparently never seen the word participate in written form before? That didn’t seem to matter to her. She was perfectly willing to sit there and help you sound it out.

When Mrs. Holland wasn’t making us read out loud from the text book (a form of exquisite torture she exacted on us, I’m totally positive, merely to satisfy her own whimsical curiosity to see who amongst us had gotten to the eleventh grade without being able to read), she was making us re-enact U.S. history. No, I mean ACTUALLY RE-ENACT IT. LIVE.

And guess who she appointed to be Joe McCarthy? Yeah. Me. And guess who got in trouble for not wearing a suit and tie to school the day of the trial? Me. The thing was, when she said she wanted me to act like Joe McCarthy, I didn’t think she was serious. But she shocked me by actually making me get up from class and go call my mom and have her bring my dad’s shirt, tie, and jacket to wear for my “performance” (Mrs. Holland provided a gavel for me to bang while accusing my fellow classmates of being Communists). I was so embarrassed!

Mrs. Holland also forced us to keep notes in what she called (in her extremely thick Southern accent) a LAW RECORD NOTEBOOK that you could only buy in one store in all of Bloomington, Indiana (T.I.S). If you didn’t have the money for it (I think it cost a dollar twenty nine), she would “make arrangements” for you to receive one. At the end of the week, she made your turn your notebook in and checked to make sure you were keeping your notes in the correct margins. If you were, she’d put a red apple sticker that had the Number 1 printed on it on the front of your Law Record Notebook. I don’t know what happened if your notes weren’t right. I was too scared of her to find out.

I still have my Law Record Notebooks. They are covered in Number 1 red apple stickers. I used them for all of the notes Princess Mia takes during her US History and Government classes. When I don’t understand something that’s going on with our current government (for instance, the 2000 election, and that whole thing with the electorate vote), I refer back to them. Mrs. Holland’s classes were THAT good.

Mrs. Holland wasn’t satisfied with us just reading the state mandated text and re-enacting history live, though. She also handed out a two page, single spaced reading list with each class, from which we had to pick three books—any three books—to read during the course of the semester, and write book reports on. These weren’t easy books, though. The books were anything from Bleak House to The Confessions of Nat Turner to Dick Gregory’s Nigger, An Autobiography. But you had to pick three and write a typed, 1,000 word report about them, or you flunked. Besides the three I just mentioned, I also read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, War and Peace, and The Scarlet Pimpernel in Mrs. Holland’s classes.

I had never heard of many of the books on Mrs. Holland’s list. But I loved the ones I read. And I saved her list, and went on to read tons more from it, just for my own pleasure. So sue me…I’m a nerd (well…I might have skipped a few pages of War and Peace).

Maybe I’m making it sound like I didn’t like Mrs. Holland. At first I didn’t. Or maybe it was that I didn’t know what to make of her. I’d never had a teacher like her. But soon, I grew to love her, and not just for her other strict rule, with which she would land on an unsuspecting student at any time: “Julie? Is that gum in your mouth? You know that when you come into my classroom, you must de-gum. When you leave, you may re-gum. Give it here.” And the trashcan, held out for the guilty party to de-gum into. Since I’m a fellow gum hater, Mrs. Holland’s classroom was like an oasis in the desert.

But the best was any time Mrs. Holland would laugh. It was hard to make her laugh, because she wasn’t an easy mark, but if you did, the pay-off was so great. Mrs. Holland didn’t just laugh like ha ha. Her whole body laughed, every part of it quivering with joy. The year the preppie boys were all wearing pink shorts to class, and Mrs. Holland caught a glance of one of them out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly started to laugh so hard, it was like she’d never stop. We had no idea why she was laughing until she wheezed, tears streaming down her face, “Oh, I’m sorry, Dan. But I saw you in those pink shorts, and for a second…I thought you came to class nekked!” Yes…she had a Southern accent, so said nekked, not naked.

It was glorious.

That Mrs. Holland was glorious was not a sentiment shared by all. Rumor had it that Mrs. Holland would flunk a star athlete who didn’t complete a book report or the notes in his Law Record Notebook correctly no matter how well his team was doing in the state finals. She didn’t care what “Coach” or that athlete’s parents had to say about it.

She was also the only African American teacher I can remember having during my entire twelve years in the Monroe County School Corporation, or at least at Bloomington High School South. In a community where African Americans were few and far between (my adopted brother was one, along with just a handful of others), and where many a pickup truck still bore the Confederate flag emblazoned across the hood (and not in an ironic way), I heard plenty of people call Mrs. Holland the N word, sometimes even to her face (apparently, these students had not chosen to read Dick Gregory’s autobiography from her reading list).

This never seemed to particularly faze her (though it bothered other members of the BHSS teaching staff enough that it drove them to near fisticuffs in defense of her, according to at least one report I received recently from a fellow BHSS grad), this woman who put so much time and energy into a job that, frankly, had to be so thankless, teaching U.S. History and Government to a bunch of teens, many of whom never would remember to spit out their gum despite her near constant reminders, and the rest of whom couldn’t read the word participate.

Nope. She went right on checking our law record notebooks, teaching us the difference between the electoral and popular votes–never knowing that someday we might actually need to know the difference—and decorating her bulletin board with pictures of Vanessa Williams, the first African American Miss America…even after the nekked photos of her came out in Playboy. Those photos of Vanessa stayed exactly where they were, a fact I always admired, given that Ms. Williams was asked to give back her crown, and a lot of the religious girls in our class thought it was scandalous of Mrs. Holland to keep Vanessa’s picture up there.

As far as I know, Mrs. Holland never complained about being called the N word by some of her students. At least, not in front of us. She was too professional. Maybe that’s why, in 1982, she was named Indiana State Teacher of the Year.

I won’t say it’s because of Mrs. Holland that I became a writer. That wouldn’t be true.

But because of Mrs. Holland, I learned a lot, and not just about U.S. History and Government. Because of Mrs. Holland, I read some great books I might never have picked up otherwise, that I still sometimes read again, for pleasure. Because of Mrs. Holland, I got to witness grace and dignity in the face of some of the worst that humanity has to dish out.

And the worst part of it is, I don’t think I ever thanked her properly for it. I just found out she passed away on April 23, 2007.

So, thank you, Mrs. Holland. I’ll never forget you. And I’ve heard from plenty of other people who were in your classes that they never will, either.

And for all the rest of you teachers (and librarians, too) out there…thank you, too. I hope someone remembers to say it to you—unlike me–before it’s too late.

More later.

Much love,

Meg