This is a true story. And it is a sad story which every teacher should read and remember before they walk into a classroom or studio. It’s also an inspiring story.
Over thirty years ago, there were two teenage girls in the eleventh grade at a very prestigious school on the outskirts of Montreal. Both of them came from highly educated families. One of the girl’s father and mother were college professors and the other’s father was a lawyer/economist and her mother a retired Latin teacher.
They shared hyphenated names, which they both hated. But they also shared bright minds and although they weren’t in the “popular” crowd, they were confident and planning what to do after they graduated. Nancy-Jane wanted to become a concert pianist and Cindy-Lee wanted to be a doctor. Cindy-Lee liked school and was the better student. She got higher grades and applied herself. Nancy-Jane hated school and managed to scrape by with minimal but passing grades. She frequently complained to her mother that her “brain was hot” and hurt when she studied. Her mother paid little attention to her daughter’s seething brain and insisted she had to finish school before attending the Conservatoire full-time.
When Cindy-Lee and Nancy-Jane walked together into their first class that September morning, no one could have foreseen what would unfold in the coming school year. Nor what terrible damage would be done to one of these young girls.
Their home teacher was Mr. Furman, the History professor. The other classes were taught by other teachers who also had their speciality subject as well as their own home classrooms. What class you were in or who became your home teacher was completely random. But the system allowed students to stay in their home room and not have to waste time meandering from classroom to classroom.
The exceptions were the Art class which required easels and the Chemistry class which was set up like a lab. This was wise as Nancy-Jane discovered later in the year when she thought the small 10 gram chunk of sodium she was given to add to a beaker of water was a little stingy. She grabbed three more cubes and the resulting explosion earned her somewhat of a reputation. But Nancy-Jane wasn’t a very good student and this sort of accidental prank was about as much attention as she could garner when she was out of range of a piano.
But Cindy Lee had good grades. She also had the most beautiful natural platinum hair and a wide smile. And she was polite and genuinely nice. Up until the moment she walked into Mr. Furman’s home room, Cindy-Lee had been the obvious choice for a teacher’s pet. However in a very short time, it became evident that not only was Mr. Furman not impressed with Cindy-Lee, he seemed to be almost hell-bent on picking her out for special criticism. In his interminably boring History classes, the questions he shot at her required the most obscure answers from the ponderous British text used in his classes.
At first Cindy-Lee just studied harder. She occasionally told Nancy-Jane as they walked home from school, that she thought Mr. Furman was picking on her. And Nancy-Jane, whose own mother was very supportive of her daughter’s rights, said she should tell her mother or father. ” You shouldn’t just take this …. it really is unfair …” Nancy-Jane urged. But Cindy-Lee, perhaps feeling her parents’ links to academia would make them biased in favor of the teacher, chose to remain silent. For months.
In the meantime, Nancy-Jane encountered the teacher who would change her life. The English teacher, Mr. Lieber. He was an exotic-looking little man who was rumored to be a Russian Jew, which made him all the more intriguing. He rolled from side to side as he walked and tended to slap his thighs, the desk, the wall and any surface which would bear the impact, with whatever text the class was studying. He was decidedly different from any of the other teachers.
His first assignment was equally unconventional. The students were to write an essay about what they really loved to do, what pleased them and excited them. He told them firmly that they must be honest. ” Write the truth and I promise you it won’t be read out in class. Tell me about yourself. I know your favorite activity isn’t school. Be honest.”
This was a novelty. And it was definitely an assignment Nancy-Jane liked. She dove in, wallowing in her love of music, her favorite composers, the art she loved, her passion for botany and even her appreciation of grass snakes and large garden toads. She let go, savoring in this rare opportunity to reveal herself.
True to his word, Mr. Lieber never read the essays aloud, but he did make a series of little comments in red ink on the sides of Nancy-Jane’s pages. In one comment, he pulled out a single sentence she’d written and rearranged it as a haiku … a form of poetry he later explained in class. In another he praised her for a choice of adjective. And in another he acknowledged her love of reptiles in a way which let her know he agreed with her.
Sitting there with her annotated notebook, Nancy-Jane savored the first real praise she’d ever experienced in school. And it was like a transfusion of some magical serum which gave her a confidence she’d never felt anywhere else but at the piano or lifting a pencil over a sheet of drawing paper. This was a new feeling. And she ran with it.
She rapidly developed a taste for English Literature and Composition. She memorized all the soliloquies from Hamlet and most of Ophelia’s lines. Searching for a new and impressive synonym to introduce into her latest essay assignments, she raided her father’s old Webster so often and enthusiastically that the spine weakened and pages began to fall out. When she discovered her first thesaurus in the school library, she experienced an almost unbearable craving to own one of her own. Her father duly obliged with a small paperback. Nancy-Jane had found a new world.
But Cindy-Lee wasn’t nearly so fortunate. Mr. Furman’s persecutions continued and intensified. Mid term History exams loomed ahead and both girls desperately tried to cram the appropriate dates of wars, laws and political machinations into their heads. The required text was a five hundred-page monstrosity, printed in a tiny font without a single illustration to relieve its cramped format. A truly horrendous teaching tool which effectively squelched any interest in History an entire generation of students may have developed. Nipped in the bud right there.
On the morning of the exam, Nancy-Jane stopped to pick up Cindy-Lee so they could walk to school together as usual. Cindy-Lee ran down the stairs, buttoning up her coat and smiling weakly. She was very pale. “ I just threw up again …. I don’t feel very well,” she said. Throwing up before class had become more frequent over the past three or four weeks. Now it was almost every day. But it was an embarrassing secret which the two friends kept very quiet.
After the exam, the girls compared notes on what they’d written and what they’d ticked off on the multiple choice questions. They’d both done very well on the multiples but were worried as usual about the essay questions. Facts were facts and if you got them correctly, you got credit. But those essay type questions could be marked by the teacher as he chose. And you could gain or lose points sometimes quite arbitrarily.
And unfairly. As the girls found out the very next day when they got to school and their tests were returned to them. Nancy-Jane had muddled through with a low pass mark. But Cindy-Lee’s paper had a huge red ”X” scribbled across the top page. And a terrible 48% tally of her marks. She’d gotten most of the multiple choice questions correct, but her essays had been savaged, with sentences crossed out and question marks dotting the page. It was a massacre. Her eyes filled up with tears as she hunched over her paper, trying not to further humiliate herself.
But Mr. Furman wasn’t through with his assault. He announced to the class that all had passed except for “our failure” and nodded towards Cindy-Lee. Then he pointed to the back of the classroom where he’d posted a list of every student’s name with his or her mark.
Cindy-Lee’s had been circled in red pencil.
That was the moment when Cindy-Lee gave up. She stopped trying. She no longer pored over her assignments trying to somehow measure up to Mr. Furman’s impossible standards. Even those classes she liked, seemed to lose their appeal. She began to make mistakes in Algebra and dozed off a couple of times in the Art Class. Her eyes dimmed and she began to look oddly vacant, as if she wasn’t in her body anymore. Nancy-Jane tried to encourage her and urged her to tell her mother what was happening. But Cindy-Lee said that both her parents were angry over her marks and merely told her she should “apply” herself.
But Nancy-Jane thrived. She often gathered her English notebooks together to re-read Mr. Lieber’s red inked comments and enjoy the feeling she got of being specially talented. She took hours honing and perfecting each assignment she was given, experimenting with new words she could sneak into them and even daring to insert a poem here and there. She read not only what was covered in the Literature class, but often sought out more work by the same author. She was well into her tenth Shakespeare play by the time the year ended. And she was covering her own private notebooks with poems and short stories.
When the school year ended, students in the tenth and the final eleventh grades were required to take Provincial exams which were set up by the Quebec government. The exams were also submitted anonymously and were marked by independent teachers. This was ostensibly to neutralize exactly the same situations the two girls found themselves in. One being unfairly targeted and the other, possibly favored.
There were two distinctly different possibilities for each of them. Cindy-Lee could have a fair chance at a balanced evaluation of her exam papers, but Nancy-Jane might not find as sympathetic and positive response from an anonymous adjudicator as she had under the doting tutelage of Mr.Lieber. They both fretted over it. Cindy-Lee said that she couldn’t concentrate any more and wasn’t able to remember what she’d learned only a few hours earlier. And she was still throwing up before school, now nearly every day. Nancy-Jane worried that maybe she’d been a teacher’s pet and was actually not as talented as Mr. Lieber had led her to believe. Maybe those compositions were really not all that good.
The girls took the exams. Cindy-Lee squeezed through with a low passing grade, but was relieved not to have failed and to be through with High School and the hateful Mr. Furman forever. But she refused her parent’s offer to send her to McGill University. No, she didn’t want to sit in a classroom ever again. Nothing they could say would change her mind. She would run away from home, she would jump off the roof of the administration building, but she would NOT ever take another exam. After months of nagging, her parents gave up. And this lovely bright girl’s future was sealed into a series of menial jobs, her life brought to a standstill when she was barely seventeen. And one man, one teacher perpetrated this crime.
I was the lucky one. I was Nancy-Jane.
My English Composition marks were returned with an astonishing 97% … the highest marks in English in Canada for that year. I looked at that figure over and over, unable to believe it could possibly be correct. Because I had dared to break some rules when I wrote that English exam. Confident and empowered by a wonderful teacher, I began paragraphs with the forbidden “and”, dared a couple of run-on sentences and even included a fragment of poetry.
I had trusted in the faith Mr. Lieber insisted he had in me moments before I walked into the examination hall. I trusted him. He’d told me that you have to know the rules, but if you’re good enough, you can break them. And this statement proved to be a yardstick for the rest of my life, long after that exam was written and forgotten.
One man, one teacher nurtured my abilities. And my life opened up …. offering vistas I could never have imagined as an indifferent young high school student.
In the year following my graduation from High School. I completed my A.R.C.T. diploma from the Toronto Conservatory with the top honors, won the prestigious Canada Council grant and set out for New York and Juilliard. Life opened and unfolded as I gleefully accepted challenge after challenge. And today almost forty years after I last saw Mr. Lieber, I still feel a wonderful tingle of anticipation as I learn something new, whether it’s computer graphics, a foreign language or trying a new dance.
I lost contact with Cindy-Lee shortly after I moved to New York. I do not know what happened to her or what sort of life she eventually made for herself. But I think of her every time a new student sits down beside me at the piano. I think of her when I encourage a child to locate a missed note and offer praise when the note is found. When a little face lights up as a new lesson becomes clear, I remember Cindy-Lee. And my heart breaks as I send out a prayer for her.
Two girls. Two teachers. Two lives changed forever.