How a Great Teacher Saved Me from a Bad Teacher and Changed My Life
by Marc Hardy, Ph.D.
One example of how “Sharing Fire” through “Personal Empowerment Philanthropy” can profoundly impact a life is evident in a story from my youth. It starts with someone who tried to douse my fire and ends with someone who rekindled it and helped it grow brighter.
I grew up in the middle of a soybean field in Granger, Indiana. My nearest friend was a mile away. My father worked several jobs; the town barber, school bus driver, volunteer fireman and encyclopedia salesman. I had two sisters who usually played with each other during the summer school break, so I spent a lot of time by myself from June through August. The summer before I entered 5th grade I became so bored that I decided to attempt to read the entire set of World Book Encyclopedias. I didn’t get all the way through, but by the time the summer ended I had a darn good vocabulary, I knew punctuation and I had written several stories. Reading and writing became my recreation and salvation. So when my new 5th grade English teacher assigned the class a homework assignment to write a three page story on anything we wanted, I became very excited. This was my new area of expertise, the place I knew I could really shine! I worked very hard for the next week on the story (the subject of which I have blocked from my mind). I was very proud when I handed it in because I knew that as soon as the teacher read my story, he would be stunned by my literary brilliance.
A week later, he called on me and said, “Mister Hardy, I would like to see you after class today.” I was glowing, knowing that I was going to be told what a wonderful writer I was by my English teacher, an authority figure whose opinion meant a great deal to me. When everyone had left the class at the end of the period, I anxiously stood before him awaiting his praise. He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and place his feet on his desk facing me – moments like this you remember small details like that – and he said to me with a stern face, “Young man, I want to know who wrote that story for you.” I was stunned. I replied that I wrote it, he told me he did not believe me, and again insisted that someone else had written the story. I repeated that I had indeed written the story and I asked him why he thought I had cheated. He very smugly replied (I refer to him as Mr. Smug now), “Because, young man, no one in the 5th grade knows how to use the word “whom” correctly in a sentence!” I was speechless. He gave me an “F” on the story and sent a note home to my parents. Although they knew the truth, it didn’t matter to Mr. Smug.
From that day forward, I decided I did not ever want to shine in class again and be accused of cheating. So I purposely became an underachiever, sliding under the radar with “C”s and “D”s, even an occasional “F”. This went on for a few years until I entered 8th grade and met my match with my new 8th grade English teacher, a 4 foot 11 inch, 95 pound, red-haired Dottie Heminger. For the first two months in her class, I flew under the radar, under-performing at every homework task. The one day all that changed when Mrs. Heminger handed out a three page story with lots of dialogue – but absolutely no punctuation. During class, she told us to punctuate the story and hand it in at the end of the period. Since it was during class and it wasn’t really homework, I decided just to whip through it and get it done so I could mess around for the rest of the class.
A week later, Dottie Heminger told me she wanted to talk to me after class. Thoughts of my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Smug, raced through my head and I dreaded what awaited me. Being fourteen and a football playing jock, I had a bad case of teenage attitude, so I tried to act the tough guy and walked up to her and scoffed, “Yeah, you want to see me?” She replied, “Yes I do. Because for the past two months you have been doing very poorly in my class and I actually thought that perhaps you might be borderline illiterate. But when we did the punctuation test in class, you were not only the first one to hand it in, you were the only student to get it 100 percent correct. So that tells me that you aren’t illiterate, which is a good thing. But it also tells me that you are extremely lazy. So I want you to know that I am going to push you very hard in this class. in short, for the next few months, I’m going to make your life a living hell.” And she wasn’t kidding.
For the next two months, she made me do assignments that the other students didn’t have to do. She made me read things I had never read before. By the end of the semester, I was a “B” student. She made me work so hard and I was so angry with her that I signed up for her class the next semester. Then I signed up for her 9th grade class. I babysat for her son, Eric, from the time he was 2 until he was about 6 or 7. We kept in contact through my high school years and we still keep in contact through Facebook, 40 years after our first class together, although she is now retired.
So why did I sign up for her class even though she made me angry at times? Because I knew she had my best interests in mind. I knew her intent toward me was honorable, that she believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. She didn’t have to spend hours with me after class. She didn’t have to have coffee with my mother after work. She didn’t have to care. But that was why she could be tough, because she cared enough.
There is much more that I will reveal about my relationship with Dottie Heminger during the writing of this book. But suffice it to say that if it were not for her sharing her fire with me and practicing “Personal Empowerment Philanthropy,” you would not be reading these words today. I wouldn’t be a writer professor and speaker either. In short, much of who I am today can be traced directly back to Dottie Hemingers efforts more than four decades ago.