Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Monday, September 10, 2012


“Appoint a teacher for yourself; acquire a friend for yourself…” - Pirkei Avot 1:6

The other day at breakfast, the Missus and I were discussing an item in the news... a Georgia pilot program in which students as young as five would be surveyed on their teachers’ performance. The results of the surveys would be considered as part of the school’s teacher evaluation process, which means – in theory – that a cranky kindergartener could, in some small way, determine whether a teacher gets to keep her job.

These are the sorts of things that convince me that we, as a society, have lost our collective minds.

Anyone who has spent any time in school whatsoever – presumably including the geniuses who designed this pilot program – knows that five-year-olds have no business determining the career paths of the people who exercise authority over them. And middle-schoolers would probably welcome the opportunity to stick it to teachers who rubbed them the wrong way. There are plenty of situations in which the people receiving services can provide fair, disinterested, and well-reasoned evaluations of their service providers, but being a student in a public school is most definitely not one of them. The Missus and I could only shake our heads in disbelief.

It occurred to me that, with respect to the numerous teachers I had while in public school, my opinions of them while in school were considerably different from those I held years later. And it only makes sense. In school, the teacher is the source of both knowledge and discipline: the former to be absorbed, the latter under which one must necessarily chafe. Four or five decades down the road, the teachers that I remember most fondly are the ones who nurtured and developed that thirst for knowledge, even unto awakening an interest in subjects where previously there had been none. And strangely, the teachers who were tough disciplinarians with finely tuned bullshit detectors – the ones who would knock me down a peg or two and help me temper my natural cockiness with welcome humility – are among those that, in retrospect, I loved best.

I must have had a latent soft spot for teachers. After all, I ended up marrying one.

And I had plenty of good ones.  A few, not so good.  Several, better than good.  Of course, my opinions of them generally improved with time.  How much of that is due to the natural human tendency to forget unpleasantness and remember the good, and how much due to my increasing maturity, I cannot say.

One in particular always stood out in my mind: Miss Barbara Polsbie.

I first encountered Miss Polsbie in ninth-grade French class. During my high school career, I would alternate between her and the formidable Mrs. Hamburger, from whom I learned both French and German... but it was always Miss Polsbie’s classes I looked forward to. And this was strange, because Miss Polsbie was no soft touch. As a teacher, she was tough, pushing us to achieve. Tests, quizzes, essays - we had them all, in ever-increasing doses.

And yet, there was a sparkle in her eye, a sense of humor. She would recite a twisted fairy tale, crammed with spoonerisms, that began, “Tonce upon a wine...” and that would have us all rolling in the aisles of the classroom.

One time, I tested her limits of tolerance. Assigned to run the 16mm projector (this was back when, to see a movie, you would thread “film” in an intricate path through a “projector,” which would then show the images on a “screen”), I deliberately set the device to run at 16 fps instead of 24. After the interminable opening credits, the soundtrack started up in all its slow-mo glory, causing the class to roar with laughter. But when Miss P. focused her laser-like gaze on me and said “Étienne!” I knew the jig was up – there was no way this was an inadvertent error, and she knew it. She said nothing more at the time, but I was never asked to run the projector again... and the lousy attitude grade I got dinged with for the marking period was icing on the cake. Message received.

It was Miss Polsbie who took our class to New York City to see the Comédie Française on Broadway in the spring of our senior year. We enjoyed a real French pre-theatre dinner at Les Pyrenées – I had the lapin provençal, rabbit with olives - and we all had a grand old time feeling like real boulevardiers.

Some years after high school, I looked up Miss Polsbie and had a very pleasant visit with her while on a business trip to the New York area. I felt like the Prodigal Son, having gone off to university and thence to work in Sweat City at the Great Corporate Salt Mine. More like equals now and less like student and teacher, we talked about old times... and then went our separate ways.

Over the intervening years, I would think of Miss Polsbie every so often. When the Missus and I honeymooned in Québec and my ability to speak French during those separatist days came in especially handy... when I took my first trip to Europe and dined at La Couronne in Brussels, carrying on reasonably fluent conversations with my colleagues and their spouses en français... when I spent one memorable night in Paris, strolling the Champs-Elysées and speaking not one word of English... and, most recently, while visiting my cousin’s family in Jerusalem, where French and Hebrew were the preferred languages for making oneself understood with his elder daughter.

* * *

Last Thursday I was in the New York area, visiting Eli (hizzownself). As we sat watching the U.S. Open tennis matches, I was idly checking CrackBook... and that’s how I received the news that Miss Polsbie had passed away that morning.

Ahh, technology. The same social media tech that had allowed me to connect with countless friends and acquaintances from the Old Days delivered that nasty little piece of news, filling me with regret. I had never reconnected with Miss Polsbie, and now the opportunity was gone forever. I would never be able to tell her how she had, in her own way, influenced me in so many little ways.

The funeral was to be the next morning, with one Rabbi Ronald Brown officiating. Somehow, the knowledge that Miss Polsbie was Jewish – a fellow Red Sea Pedestrian! – had eluded me all those years. Given that I was already in the New York area and that the service would be held less than fifteen minutes away from The Other Elisson’s place, I resolved to attend... and thus it was that with a borrowed suit and tie (The Other Elisson is a hair taller than me, but we are otherwise of a size these days), I showed up to pay my respects.

At the service, there was a modest crowd of friends and former colleagues, but no family: Barbara was the last of her line. Without family members and without the presence of the requisite quorum of ten Jews – a minyan – there would be no recitation of the Kaddish, the traditional mourner’s doxology. And yet...

True, Miss Polsbie had no children of her own – no biological offspring, anyway. Yet all of us who filled her classroom were, in a way, her children. Subtly or overtly, we who were her students all bear the imprint of her teaching and of her personality. By the grace of the Eternal One, I was able to represent us at her funeral... and thus on me falls the responsibility of reciting Kaddish for the appropriate period of mourning.

Farewell, B’rachah bat Miriam. You were a very special teacher, and you will be remembered.


Kevin Kim said...

I'm sorry to read about the passing of your beloved teacher. Veuillez agréer l'expression de mes condoléances les plus sincères.

As for evaluations... if you haven't read it already, I'll point you to this post by Jeff Hodges.

Ole Phat Stu said...

Agood teacher just holds the light, but doesn't tell you where to look.

Houston Steve said...

And now I know why you were standing on Monday. You are a mensch.

The Maximum Leader said...

I must be getting overly emotional as I age. I found myself getting a little choked up at the end. You are a good man.

Bou said...

I love this post. I'm sorry for your loss, but happy for her that in her passing she was remembered by someone who truly appreciated who she was and what she had to offer. There are so many who have offspring... who are just that, offspring. They may have biological children, but they are not offered up what you did for her.

PeggyU said...

That was really beautifully said.

Picchiboo said...

Mlle Polsbie and I had been exchanging holiday cards every year since I graduated in '77. We'd catch each other up on the significant events of the year - her adventures in retirement, my wedding/travels/children... Last holiday season I didn't receive my usual card from Barbara, and did worry, knowing that she suffered from several health issues. Being the 21st century I googled her but nothing came up. Cousin Dan brought your posting to my attention, Steve. So glad you were there to represent us former students, and for "Tonce upon a wine..." Do you remember "Ssparkle sparkle little twink who the heck I are you think...?" Much love, Cousin Stef (Etiennette!)

Alicia said...

Thank you for seeing Ms Polsbie off. She was a tough teacher. I loved her smile and always wished I could be as cool as she was. To quote from The Little Prince....which I thoroughly enjoyed reading in French in her class....
“In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your beautifully written tribute to Miss P. Appreciate the comments above as well.

Today, I found out about the passing of Barbara. Miss P. was the first girl I ever kissed, and my "girlfriend", that's what we called them back in the day, all through high school.

I was disappointed that there was nothing about her life when I did a search but then I found this site. You gave me some insight into her life after school and the indelible and positive impact she had on you and other students.

Thank you for your tribute. Miss P. may have taught you French but I appreciate how you used your writing skills in English to keep her memory alive for those of us who missed those years.

Anonymous said...

I had Miss Polsbie a couple years too. She was tough but I didn't realize how cool she was until years later. Funny.

Your article was really great and I'm glad you were there to see her off as a representative of us. And for that I thank you, good sir. Au revoir Miss P. - I stank in French but I'll never forget you. Notesville!!! - Love, "Maurice" :)