Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mr. Creel.

A letter I'm not sure I'll send:

Dear Marty Creel,

Do you remember me? I went to Eastern Middle School in 1994-1995 when you taught eighth grade Social Studies. You called me Ekelperson, the political correction to my last name, and I hated it so much that I worked my ass off in your class just to piss you off. All the other eighth grade girls had a crush on you--thought you looked like Brad Pitt on a motorcycle. I hated you for it.

But I loved your class. I've never worked harder on a school assignment in my life than I did on my hypercard stack about the Incas (including my almost-finished master's thesis about teaching English to Advanced Placement students). I still remember crying at Jeremy Irons and The Mission (though again, I hated you for playing it the day before spring break and depressing me for most of my vacation). When you gave me the award for "Passionate Inquiry" at the end of the year, I was as shocked as I was angry. I wanted an award in English. I wanted to be a writer.

I remember hating you mostly because everyone loved you. It was the mid-nineties and grunge attitudes ruled. Whatever was "popular" must, of necessity, suck. However, the truth is, that you are one of the best teachers I have ever had; and having attended magnet schools between 4th and 12th grades, an honors college, and a prestigious writing master's program with educators such as Hepsie Roskelly (former head reader of the AP Language and Composition exam) and Nancy Johnson (who has sat on the Newberry Committee), that's pretty impressive. Sorry I hated you.

I am a teacher now, and sometimes I'm hated by the students I push hard to go beyond their current capabilities. For three years I taught English at Eleanor Roosevelt High School--all levels, from Special Education students in integrated classrooms who never did quite manage to complete the year after their court case or the birth of their child to Advanced Placement Language and Composition students currently attending Harvard and will one day rule the world--seriously. I often think about your pedagogical choices with new insight--and admiration.

But teaching in the U.S. was hard if you cared about the education of the young minds entrusted to you. Too hard for me, sadly. I was a good teacher. Possibly, a great teacher. But Saturday nights spent at a jazz bar grading a stack of essays as tall as the glass of cabernet savignon I was sipping led me to look for some other outlet. I had no time for my other passions (besides teaching) like writing and travel. So last year, I quit, took a position teaching English as a foreign language in South Korea and spend my days doing taekwondo and teaching children who are nearly identical compared to the endless diversity in the DC area I am used to, and my nights swing dancing and learning Korean from my dance partners. It's wonderful. But I do miss teaching in the U.S.

What I don't miss is hearing about knuckle-headed initiatives from hard-assed administrators who have forgotten the day-to-day "in the trenches" stuff of teaching that cuts funding to programs that actually use their funds effectively to educate and enrich the lives of the young people who engage in them. When I meet people who didn't go to the Montgomery Blair High School magnet program, all of their friends from high school are drug addicts or having their fifth babies or some other such stereotype from a bad after school special. My friends (hell, my casual acquaintances) are working on residencies at Yale, Ph.Ds in Math or Economics from Cornell and University of Chicago, working pro bono as lawyers for AIDS nonprofits, travelling the world and making it a better place.

Teachers being forced to retire from these budget cuts, such as Mr. Bunday and Ms. Dyas, may have ostensibly taught subjects like Physics and Calculus, but just like when you were once as an eighth grade social studies teacher, they taught so much more. They empowered us to figure out our passions and to pursue them. They encouraged us to think in a world that would rather tell young people not to, because it is afraid of their ideas.

(Why are we, American society I mean, afraid of teens anyhow? Most of the ones I've ever known are pretty damned amazing. They care about life in a way that those of us "wiser" and "more mature" can't remember... and hell if we could, we wouldn't want to because it was also a horrible, chaotic, mixed-up time where those same friends of mine so successful now endured eating disorders, suicide attempts, severe depressions, heartbreak, and abuse to name a few... How the hell did we make it out of there in one piece??? Oh yes, because Blair provided a refuge. A safe harbor where we could think about the fourth dimension and the environmental causes of pfsteria instead of our daily teen angst.)

I know being an administrator is not easy. I considered it, thinking I could do some good, but realizing it's a position I would never want. You have to balance all of these impossibilities--budgets, programs, students, teachers--and it's hard to know the bottom line.

But, Mr. Creel, and I can't believe I am talking so casually and honestly to you, this odd and imposing figure in my memories still telling me how to compose a successful five paragraph essay, if I may be frank-- no good can come of cutting funds in so damaging a manner to the Blair magnet program. It is a program that works. The electives are open to all students at Blair, and many of the non-magnet students took Marine Biology and Thermodynamics right along with me and benefited from the exceptional talents of the teachers who were the backbone of the program's success. Diffusing these students and these teachers won't really benefit the county as a whole because it will isolate them. They will each have to become islands and rocks fighting alone in a sea of mediocrity and oppression without their safe harbor. And many won't make it.

I'm not sure I would have. I'm really not.

Please, sir. Please reconsider.

With love,
Diana E.--former student, current teacher, concerned citizen.


  1. Send it! Why wouldn't you? It's really well written and will hopefully help. Put a stamp on it!

  2. That was a really well-written letter. I share your sentiments about public school. I haven't actually been a full-time teacher in the States but I subbed for a while so I got to see the worst of it!

    Haven't had a chance to dig through your blog thoroughly yet. Are you teaching at a hogwan or public school?

  3. I do think you should send it. Your former teacher will cry, to know he is so well and truly remembered by someone like you.


  4. DIANA,
    A great writing. You should mail to Mr. Creel and his boss.

  5. dekelman,

    I am a magnet from the class of 2000. The past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about what's going to happen to the magnet. It upsets me. It makes me sad. But I hesitate to write a letter because I fear that the words will come out wrong. That I will sound too arrogant and obnoxious as you and I both know magnets can be. That the words will not be potent enough for them to understand my concern. That instead of helping I will be hurting the cause because I do not have a gift for words.

    Your letter is a letter I wish I could write. Please send it. You will be speaking for many others who share you feelings but have a voice too cacophonous to be heard.

  6. Diana -

    I came across this blog post because I was searching for "Eastern Middle School" and 1995 (trying desperately to remember the name of my gym teacher for a personal essay I'm writing. I failed at that). I was a year behind you in the Eastern magnet (though I'm not sure I remember you from then), and I also have intense memories of Mr. Creel. He really was a fantastic teacher - though I was one of the girls who loved him back then. I was just so grateful to be in his class.

    Anyway, I went on to the IB at RM instead of the Blair magnet, but I have so many of the same passionate memories and feelings from Montgomery County magnet programs as you do. I hope you sent the letter, and I hope Korea is treating you well, and I hope you're keeping up your writing. Isn't it funny what the Internet brings us sometimes?

  7. Hey wow. I remember Mr. Creel too. I think he is pretty much the main reason I have morals today. (Long story).

    Love that you wrote him a blog letter.

    I wonder where he is today.

    PS: Somehow I had forgotten that we both went to the Eastern Magnet program. Weird.

    Miss you!


  8. I remember Mr. Creel. He was one of my favorite teachers, too. The New York City trip is still one of my fondest memories. Were you in my class? I entered eighth grade in the fall of 1995. I also remember his motorcycle and leather jacket. Send the letter. I'm sure he'd feel touched.

    Matt ("Meh-fan")



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