The McKinley Teachers
Ruth McClain, a '60 graduate of McKinley, is a professor at Ohio University in Columbus, Ohio. She teaches English, writing, humanities and literature at the university. For 37 years she was either in public education at the secondary level or teaching out of the country in Mexico and New Guinea.
The following is a tribute about a teacher we all remember. The sound of her name brings forth memories and faint sounds. She was the type of teacher some may not have liked at the time, but the kind of dedicated teacher we wish our own children and grandchildren could have had. Obviously, as you will see, Ms Klages had a lasting impact on Ruth McClain.
What’s in a name? If the name happens to be Theodora Klages, it bespeaks volumes. I was a sophomore at McKinley High School, and World History was a requirement. As sophomores, my classmates and I had not yet attained the assuredness of seniors but, certainly, we had lost the temerity of incoming freshmen. It was probably just this sense of bravado that made me feel as though I was above the requirements for World History outlined that September morning by Ms Klages herself.
She was quite clear. Our grades were based on three things: test scores, attendance and class participation, and a daily “write-up” of the lesson as she liked to call them. This collection of “write-ups” was to be dated and turned in at the end of every nine weeks. My first thought: Who in her right mind would have the time or the energy to read through six classes of students’ notes. It was in this that I had not fully calculated the tenacity nor the diligence of the short, gray haired woman who sat before me. I think I concentrated more on her love of coffee for, daily, she placed her thermos carefully on her desk as if it were an expensive vase of fragrant flowers.
At precisely 10:10 each morning, the class filed into her room, took our seats, and heard the daily and familiar, “Put your books on the floor and get out only your paper for note taking.” She never wavered. It was psychological conditioning at its finest. Those piercing blue gray eyes randomly selected a victim at whom she would toss a question gleaned from the previous night’s reading that she assumed we all had done. If a student didn’t know the answer, she merely noted the name and moved to another. When the end of that nine weeks came, she’d call us up one by one and go over our quarterly grades so that no student would be surprised at the grade he or she received on the report card.
When it came my turn, I walked fearlessly to her desk anticipating the B+ or even possibly the A I thought I had coming. There was no B; certainly no A. Instead, in a clear voice and with coffee cup in hand, she looked me dead in the eye, told me that several of my “write-ups” were missing, and gave me the C I deserved. I hadn’t outwitted her in the least. Dejected and somewhat surprised, I left that classroom determined to do better the second nine weeks.
One particular morning as Ms Klages held forth on the sinking of the Bismarck or the Punic Wars, she was called from the room. I shall never know what possessed her at that moment to instruct me to carry on with the lesson until she returned. She bustled down the rows of students as I rose from my seat and attempted to carry on the discussion in which we were engaged. Thank goodness, she wasn’t gone long. It may have been no more than five minutes; yet, it seemed an hour. With a broad smile on her face, she bustled in again with skirts swooshing against the legs of adolescent boys whose long, lanky limbs spilled over into the aisles. Beaming, she sat down at her desk, thanked me for continuing the lesson, and said, “Wouldn’t she make a fine teacher.” And then, she made the most unusual remark. “I just love the way you keep those saddle shoes so clean,” she said to me.
For years, I have wondered what clean saddle shoes had to do with the ability to conduct a lesson. I’ve never quite connected the two, but this much I know is true—that in a busy day, a teacher took a moment to make a personal and complimentary remark to a student who, herself, became a teacher spending a lifetime working with students, some of whom have themselves become teachers.
Perhaps Ms Klages knew that she was mentoring me. Whatever turmoil may have been going on in her own private life was kept from her students. She was there to teach, and I like to think that she learned from us even as we learn from our own students and children. For Ms Klages, teaching was a moral endeavor—a time of giving which generated the learning cycle. She was a practitioner into the inquiry of the “art of the impossible” except that I think she knew the possibilities that lay ahead not only for herself but also for her students. I think of Ms Klages’ life and teaching as reaching the stage of an artist where she was able to “see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower.” I was that grain of sand. And, by the way, at the end of the second nine weeks of that sophomore year, I had every one of those “write-ups” turned in.
Ruth McClain, '60