Penguin Lessons

UE Back to school time always reminds me of teachers. Let me introduce one of my favorites.
          The first college class of my freshman year, Honors English, met on the third floor of the massive old stone administration building. I climbed the well worn stairs with trepidation.
          The classroom door stood open. Coming from a sleek, modern high school, I was shocked when I peeked inside. The room was tiny! A battered desk faced rows of wooden seats with attached writing plates. The last row of chairs touched the back wall and the front row pressed against the professor’s desk.
          The one redeeming feature in the tiny room was the bank of tall windows that filled the far wall. The well-worn wood floor squeaked and groaned as I stepped inside. The chair creaked when I sat down. Other students arrived, but no one spoke.
          The professor arrived right on time. He was short and compact. He wore a shapeless black suit with a white shirt and plain tie. He walked with a Chaplinesque waddle. I stifled a laugh when I saw his bulbous-toed shoes that looked like small versions of circus clown footwear. His bald head was shiny as the capital dome. Wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his beak nose. He looked like a penguin!
          Placing his black briefcase on the battered desk, he continued across the room to raise the sash of the forward window. Fresh air filled the room. Returning to the desk, he carefully centered a small lectern and stepped into position squarely behind it. He surveyed the class. Slowly. Solemnly. Silently.
          “Hello,” he said at last. “My name is Archie.”
          Okay. I expected college to be different from high school. Maybe college professors liked their students to address them by first names.
          He continued. “I am a cockroach.”
          Whoa! I hit the weirdo jackpot in my first class. Frozen in place, I lowered my eyelids and shifted my eyes to the right. The student beside me sat wide-eyed and sphinx-like.
          Without a hint of a smirk, The Penguin proceeded to recite the full opening poem from Archie & Mehitabel, Don Marquis’ book about a little cockroach who lived in a newsroom and hopped from key to key writing poems and messages to the editor. One by one, we let go our held breath as we realized this professor did not really think he was a cockroach.
          Honors English turned out to be a writing class. Three mornings a week, with windows open, we watched the seasons change from our tiny aerie as the Penguin and a fictional insect trained our minds.
          He used no overhead slides, no video presentations, and no handouts. Thought-stimulating quotes from Archie the cockroach looped across the blackboard in the Penguin’s neat handwriting. We simply wrote. We wrote in class. We wrote in the library, in the shade of campus trees, on busses, and in dormitory rooms to complete our assignments.
          The Penguin critiqued our work with a red pen and read selected papers aloud to the class. We discussed structure, word use, and overall effect. While some of our papers came back looking bloodied, the Penguin never failed to write notes of encouragement on each paper. The exercise opened mental windows to the diversity of thoughts and writing styles among class members and the value of divergent ideas and expressions.
Most class members returned for a second term with the Penguin. A sign on our third floor doorway informed us that Honors English had been moved to the much touted—and very expensive—new academic and theater complex. It had kept the campus in mud and construction fences most of the fall.
          We trouped down the stairs together, tiptoed over slick sidewalks and found our room in the center of the new building. It was spacious, freshly painted, and brightly lighted. Polished metal desk-chairs faced a sleek professor’s desk with a formidable lectern positioned beside it.
          The Penguin arrived right on time. The floor did not make a sound as he entered. He set his black briefcase on the desk and surveyed the room from side to side.
          “Well, what do you think of this room?” he asked.
          In unison we replied, “It has no windows!”
          He nodded in agreement. “I’ll see what I can do about that.”
When we met again two days later, we were back in our cramped third floor room with open windows and creaky floor.
          The Penguin taught me that brand new bricks and mortar, fancy equipment, and the latest textbooks are not the essentials of an exceptional learning experience.
          The teacher makes the difference!

The Penguin, aka Dr. George Klinger, died in 2010 at age 81.

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