My Junior English Teacher Passed Away This Week

To set the mood, lets start this class in the continued pursuit in this forum of where creativity originates — with this sound to begin the “Morning Announcements, just as it once did in Barbara Wagner’s English classroom in 1990s Ottawa Hills, Ohio as she scowled from her front table.

Babs is not the only reason I hate teachers — just the first reason that always comes to mind.

This week, my 8th grade and Junior English teacher passed away. She was 74. She retired from my high school the year we graduated in 1998. During times like these, normally you have to say something nice about a person no matter what you think. They’re loved ones certainly will miss them who ever they are and no matter what they may have done. Its bad form to do much of anything else. I totally understand that. I get what I’m about to do cosmically here. But just like anything else, no one is purely evil. No terrible act doesn’t have the possibility to produce something better.

Frankly, I don’t believe in GOOD and BAD, I believe in the Good, the Bad, and the all important IN BETWEEN.

My whole life I’ve been trying not just to fight Barbara Wagner — but also the loyalists she produced in great numbers. She was arbitrary with her sword, she was complicit in maintaining the social elite in a place where most outside observers would have thought she shouldn’t, often at the cost of those who were not — and in the end, what was her energy all about?
THERE was the Christmas assembly
where she dressed up as santa clause and made fun of everyone in the senior class. The teachers would act like the cool kids dating each other and she was the ring leader. Then the actual cool kids would have to come and sit on her lap in order to get these ‘gifts’. THE WHOLE SCHOOL had to sit there and watch it in the last HOUR before we were allowed to go home for CHRISTMAS BREAK. Jewish, Muslim, reasonable, it didn’t matter. No excuse. There was the time in the 8th grade I was failing because of participation points(people of modern era, have you ever known me not to participate?). After my parents went in to talk to her, she said it was because I always chose to sit in the back. If I sat in the front, she would know that I cared about her.

There was the gaggle at her desk after school kissing ass and paying attention to get those ‘A’s…

There was the time Dan or Mike Rissing, I can’t remember which claimed that he took a shit on her desk.

There was the time Mrs. Wagner realized that KC Colwell’s dad had sat in the same chair in the same classroom a generation earlier and no matter what Kirk did, he was going to get the same grade as his father before him.

There was the time Mike Fisher helped to ‘improve’ her fucked up GRADING system on her IBM 286 — but in the end it didn’t matter. Somehow an 85 was an ‘A’. Despite advancement in grading systems such as micrograde OR the common calculator — BABS had her own system and liked it that way. So what if the numbers came out differently every time she processed them?

There were the Jewish holidays at the beginning of the year when she wouldn’t give you the homework because to her there were no excused absences.

There was the A project where everyone had to do whatever they COULD to get an ‘A’ out of her. These spoils furnished her classroom from ghosts of kiss-ass past. I wasn’t in honors English so I didn’t get to do it.

There was the time Jack Brunner took a shower at her house.

And then finally there was the time I told her off, left and never came back again. I had been sick (legitamely — I had a prescription for antibiotics this time) and it was considered an excused absence. I came to get my homework from her afterschool the first day I was back — and had to crawl through her afterschool gaggle of kiss asses and pleasantries. When I asked her for my homework — she said there wasn’t any. She just let the class work on their papers that day — she conveyed this with a smile(I’m not mentioning the mustache here) and I hope you feel better.

In truth, and she did this sort of thing often — she handed out a handwritten cheat sheet for the final exam happening the next week. Next thing I knew, I found myself in the middle of the exam and didn’t know what was going on. I came to approach her about it during the test and asked what the deal was.

She said, “we went over that when you chose not to be here.”
BECKMANN “But, I had an excused absence.”
BABS “There are no excused absences in my classroom”
BECKMANN “Well is it your intention that I fail this quarter?”
BABS “That was up to you when you decided not to come to my class. I’m trying to prepare you for college.”

By this point, I had already started taking college classes at the University of Toledo… so I brought that up.

BECKMANN “Well Mrs. Wagner. I don’t know what you think you’re preparing us for here, but I take college classes now and I was sick there too that day. They gave me my homework because they wanted to give me a chance. You’re not preparing us for college Mrs. Wagner, I don’t know WHAT you’re preparing US for. I think everyone in the room needs to understand, this is all about your sick world you have here. If we don’t have a chance to prepare for these things, we won’t get into the college you say you’re preparing us for! This test is bullshit and so is your class.”

BABS “You can’t talk to me like that here. Next time you won’t miss my class” (voices raising)
BECKMANN “You’re right Mrs. Wagner, there’s not going to be a next time. I’m through with you and your class and your bullshit grading system. You try to control everyone in this room, but the problem is and everyone here knows this, you’re arbitrary. The world outside of this room has rules and standards, not whims. And that’s where I’m going.”

It had long been known that Mrs. Wagner had had some issues with Alchohol abuse. Most recovering alcholics, like our former president, George W. Bush, have issues with maintaining control. Leaving her classroom like that, in that public fashion, was probably one of the worst things I felt I could do that woman after a year and a half of almost daily torment. It was public, and she no longer had control over me.

Our principal was in the process of being run out of town at that point — and I went to her office. She granted me permission to finish my English requirements at University of Toledo. The next teacher to fall in a less dramatic fashion was Mrs. Langhals. She told my mom on the phone my questions in history class reminded her of her abusive ex husband-so there would be no irruption — she wanted ME out and this was quite helpful to her. Mama Langhals only taught by the book, so any questions at all really weren’t very welcome. She also used to make fun of students who had foreign accents and I didn’t like that too much. It was a great class for people who copied homework in the hall before her class, not for those of us who cared about history.

I ended up getting a 4.0 in these courses at UT. I took summer school classes after my junior year at Washington University and aced those too — I’d never done that before in my average track classes at Ottawa Hills. My move towards college away from Ottawa Hills started in Babs’ classroom-it was the first moment I got to taste freedom . By the second half of senior year, I was only taking college classes and when Ottawa Hills wanted me to come back to help them bump up their all important profiency test scores — like my mother said when they wanted to hold me back in kindergarten because they thought it would help their rankings, I told them no. In turn, I graduated from Ottawa Hills ranked 32 out 58 — they wouldn’t count my college course for class rank as a matter of decision. This damaged Washington University’s rankings to have someone in the bottom half of their class, I must apologize to all of those I went to college with — but they took me anyway. I got letters of reccomendations from those I took summer school with and they clearly saw the difference between my high school and my college transcript.

Then there was the time at Washington University early on when kissing ass didn’t work. The five paragraph composition Bab’s prior Furer Mrs. Hauck beat into us didn’t work either. They wanted me to read something.. understand what I thought about it critically and then explain that to them, in a well written essay. Despite Ottawa Hills being the best school in Toledo, I was up against kids who didn’t have this bullshit in their schools or at least it appeared it was less provincial in their approach to it.

You see BABS’s power was always with the prospect of preventing us from getting into college — from getting out of that fuck hole classroom, school AND village by waive of her shaky hand. When the final report card came from her class, I remember standing there with my parents, wondering what she might give me. You can’t get into college with an F in Junior English, it doesn’t matter what happened. My mom read it in surprise. She gave me me a ‘B’.

I never was quite sure why she gave me a ‘B’. Maybe it was her concern that if she didn’t she might get audited, maybe I had learned what she wanted me to — now we’ll never really know, but I’m certain if I had asked her last week, she would have remembered with her own reasons. Her and others in her faction of oppressive teachers — we now must mention her next classroom neighbor Mr. Heitger and his hockey stick — which the next time I see him, I’ll be happy to bash him back, for all the mathematicians and scientists he destroyed with it — retired with my graduating class in 1998. They didn’t like the way the school was headed. Many of us joked that she had found the model student she was looking for — my best friend, David Roemer and after him, there was no reason to continue. I always appreciated that David continue to be my friend after all of this, I know his relationship with Babs was important to him.

I’ve talked with a few of my classmates about all of this in the last 24 hours. There’s a lot of love for BABS which shouldn’t be left out here — this is only my perspective. However, certainly some were turned away from English — some of the more quiet ones were just turned away from everything in general by Ottawa Hills High School. Having to take shit from this woman, her colleagues, along with their classmates, THEIR parents(may any mom who served on the Mother’s Support(SPY) Group(MSG) get what’s coming to them), THE VILLAGE and the repressive society of Northwest Ohio overall, there were many in the 1998 graduating class of Ottawa Hills High School in the background that were never really heard from again. We never managed to have a class reunion like the other ones.

My whole life has been about trying to find the thing inside everyone that wants to create, that wants to produce something positive for the world and bring it out of them. To CREATE is proof of life. We all have that within us. To repress it so greatly in all of us is to produce the living dead. And if its a testament — even though I truly have not thought of Babs in over a decade now — that she inspired me to do what she could not — then in that case I appreciate having met her.

In general, I appreciate having gone through that school and that fucked up and dying semblance of a community because of how much inspiration I gathered there. One day, I hope my parents get to leave too. Unfortunately, after a generation of putridness, no one from the outside wants to move to Toledo or Ottawa Hills and there aren’t very many souls to sell their house to. But in the meantime, and it is always said, at least they don’t have to talk to anyone from that school ever again.

This is all great stuff. People who went to private school some place or grew up in moderate suburbia where they had shit to deal with too but there was a way to blend in to the scenery — or ANOTHER SECTION of English — they don’t have these gifts.

And yes. I’ve had issues with authorities in my time — and the fight to break past them is a ‘narrative’ I would greatly miss in my life if I didn’t have it. To this day, I still don’t have a very favourable opinion of teachers — I won’t date them as a standing rule. Just like anarchists who seek lawlessness to find out what comes next, if the teachers union finally went on national strike, I’m curious about what we might find next. So many minds held back — creative potential repressed in our school systems.

So as we conclude, another explanation on where creativity originates, lets all raise our spirits to wherever Barbara Wagner is right now. Whether you loved her or hated her, there was no in between. And on this day, I have to respect that. She made a difference.

To this accord, I find it fitting that launches this week. A place created to topple the boundaries of the bullies and militant grammarians out there who said you can’t do it.

3 Responses to “My Junior English Teacher Passed Away This Week”

  1. Michael A. says:

    Thanks for this, Dan. I couldn’t stand the woman, either, but I do hope she rests in peace.

    Here’s to Schmooru, too.

  2. beckmann says:

    here here Michael A.

  3. Allison says:

    No one can accuse you of being wishy washy and gushing…

    I think Ms. Wagner would appreciate the provocation.

    As for ‘what she was trying to prepare us for,’ I think she liked being a pain in the ass to show us how to deal w that kind of stuff. I remember when we organized a system to deal w her participation points.
    Same as what you said – she called on the people in the front of the room, and it really dinged grades even as we all knew the answers. We complained and nothing changed. Then we decided that if she wanted to suck the fun out of the class, we were down with that, and we had people take their turns raising their hands. Only one person would raise a hand every time she would ask a ‘participation point’ question. It irked the hell out of her, and the dynamic conversational nature of the class evaporated. We explained that we would rather have a fair distribution of participation points than a fun class, and she loved it, congratulated us, and caved. That was the kind of thing she loved. She liked to see us working together against her to get everybody on the same page.

    The whole AP Amalgamates for A’s thing leveraged that too — all or nothing, and she couldn’t fail the entire junior AP class! (We worked our assess off for that thing, so we really did deserve the grades by the end.) But we worked that hard because we knew that she *could* fail the entire AP class if we didn’t overwhelm her. I really loved her class in how it was a constant provocation.