I was a smart kid and a terrible student.
I started going to school in the late 1950s, and by the fall of 1963, when I entered fifth grade, I had already accumulated a truly dismal academic record: Ds, Fs, Incompletes, and the rare C. I could bore you with a detailed analysis of my young troubles, but they weren't particularly exceptional. Given what many children cope with, they barely qualified as “troubles.” What is worth discussing is how one teacher turned me around.
To be fair, over the years I had experienced several terrific teachers. Even those who weren't terrific did their best, but I was a challenge. Though I'm not a teacher, I have friends and a girlfriend who are, so I believe I have a better-than-average understanding of the extraordinary efforts teachers make to reach students who are clearly capable of getting more out of school than they're getting. A number of teachers made such efforts on my behalf. One succeeded.
It's not news that some children have a tough if not impossible time learning in the typical classroom environment, and that, as they accumulate failures, they cease to believe (if they ever did) in their ability to do what the kid sitting next to them seems to do with ease. If they do the assignments at all, they rarely attempt to do them well. They don't participate in class discussions. They ignore homework, and make no effort to provide the correct answers on in-class tests, which they often don't complete.
That was certainly my story. It's an extremely frustrating situation even for the most experienced, patient teacher. For less experienced teachers, it may be overwhelming. And it's devastating for the student.
I recall my third-grade teacher -- a conscientious young woman, twenty-five or so, and probably in her second or third year of teaching at the time. One Sunday afternoon, she met my mother and me for lunch. She was at the end of her rope. We had a pleasant enough lunch and a long walk, but come Monday morning, nothing had changed.
There were many such get-togethers, parent-teacher conferences, stern talks, promises made and broken (by me), and parents and teachers at a loss for a solution. I was utterly unmotivated. Nothing interested me, especially math. (That was the despair of my father, a civil engineer who carried a slide rule in his pocket and considered algebra and trigonometry relaxing entertainment.)
Yet I was a big reader from an early age. I was fascinated by nature and the several animals I kept, and from age six I collected and studied butterflies and other insects, never missing the Friday-afternoon bug club facilitated by the local children's librarian. I was the youngest of five children in a family of talkers, so I was comfortable with adults and frequently conversed with older people. I was precocious in my vocabulary, speech, and spelling. (I did actually excel at my school’s monthly spelling bee.) And yet, my academic performance was abysmal. I just didn't see the point of it all.
Then came fifth grade.
Two things made an indelible impression on me that year: The first was the news, delivered in a man's sad, deep voice over the school's PA system one November morning: President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The second was the owner of that voice, Dr. Foster. As horrific and incomprehensible as the assassination was, the impression Foster made on me was of a much more personal, deeper, and enduring nature.
Foster was the school principal. He also taught fifth grade. He was the quintessential academic in appearance: graying, close-cut hair; large, thick tortoise-shell glasses; and tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. He was funny, sometimes strict, always lively, occasionally all business, and other times not. He drove a Mercedes-Benz that was long past its glory days. To me, he looked like someone's grandfather. He was forty-four.
Within the first few days of school, he started coming by my desk or finding me in the schoolyard. He'd joke with me a little, or we'd talk for a bit. He'd pepper me with questions about my dog, my favorite type of butterfly, what sort of plants I liked to grow, the last book I'd read, how I got that scratch on my forehead, which country I’d most like to visit, what I found interesting about Egypt (the pyramids), what I would like to be when I grew up (a veterinarian), and so on.
Sometimes I'd arrive at school early and Foster would ask me to help him move chairs or clean a blackboard or roll in the movie projector. As I helped him, we'd talk -- but never about school, my grades, or anything happening in class.
What he was doing, I realize now, was getting to know me and establishing a friendship, trust, and rapport. But on another level, Foster was looking for a way in and a way past the effective obstacles I'd devised -- trying to discover how to reach me and get me to apply my intelligence in class. He was constructing an intellectual-emotional profile, learning about my interests and aspirations, looking for a way -- any way -- to turn me on to education.
One day, as the class was nearly finished with a math test I had not yet started, I was staring out the window at a large tree. Foster walked over and pulled up a chair next to mine. "Liquid amber," he said. "Five-pointed leaf; rarely three, four, or six; almost always five." He went on to tell me about the spiral symmetry of sunflowers, pinecones, the Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean, which I'd never heard of. "Stick around after class," he said. "We'll talk about the pyramids, and not just the ones in Egypt. The ones in Mexico." Pyramids in Mexico?
"Yes, there are many pyramids in Mexico, and, like the Egyptian ones, they're all very interesting mathematically,” he explained as I help straighten desks later. “The big pyramid at a place called Chichén Itzá, for example, has four staircases with a total of 365 steps -- the number of days in a year. Some say it's a kind of calendar or clock."
He'd noted that I'd brought a copy of The Guinness Book of Records to class one day, and that I had a fascination for numbers when they related to something real that was interesting to me, not as abstractions. He started coaching me in math, but always using examples in nature, pyramids, crystals (I had told him I was a rock collector and especially fond of crystals), or from Guinness. He'd somehow bring animals into an equation or a history lesson -- whatever worked. Foster took a similar approach with all subjects, always finding ways to interpret topics in a way that related to my life or my interests.
But he did not focus solely on me. There were half a dozen kids in that class doing poorly when the year began, and he brought us all up to speed, keeping the other fifteen or twenty kids moving along as well. He had queried the other struggling students much like he had me and found ways to work their personal interests into our lessons. I got straight As for most of that year.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend, discussing our bleak academic pasts, and I told her about Foster. I'd thought about him many times over the years, but I had no idea what had become of him. I hadn't seen him in more than four decades. "I wonder if he's still around," I said to my friend. "It would be interesting to look him up."
Less than a week after that, while having coffee and reading the news, I came across a short article on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site: "Daniel A. Foster, a longtime...educator and expert on federal education programs, has died. He was eighty-eight...He wrote scores of articles on education law and served as the president of the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators." Foster worked for thirty-four years, from 1947 to 1981, in the same school district where I had been fortunate enough to encounter him. Over the course of his career, he had been a teacher, a principal, and a district administrator.
More importantly, from my perspective -- and, I suspect, from that of the many struggling, indifferent kids whose paths he crossed -- he had an almost preternatural ability to connect with students and motivate them. He did it by being compelling and kind and funny, sharing his vast, erudite knowledge, and doing so in a way that made students crave more.
His technique -- whether it was that or an astonishingly acute intuition is hard to say -- was to connect a student’s experience to the world at large through what he was presenting in the classroom, and put those experiences and a specific subject in a unique, personalized context. He did it by relating what he was teaching to the student’s own interests, experiences, and enthusiasms. The result for the student was that learning, education, and schoolwork did, finally, have a point.
It was a profound leap of understanding for me and those other problem kids to make. I appreciated it at the time and appreciated it even more as the years rushed past. I only regret that I didn’t get a chance to thank Foster.