In the mid 1950s teachers typically maintained one of two postures in the classroom—they either stood most of the time or
they sat most of the time. Jeanne Low, who taught French at Manchester High, stood erectly in front of the first row of
desks. She was tall to begin with and seemed even taller when we looked up at her from our lowly desks. Mr. Danielson
spent most of his time standing at the blackboard in math class, largely perhaps because he had a lot of equations to write
and a lot of problems to solve. I often felt that the relationships in his Algebra II class were more geometric than
algebraic. They formed a triangle going from him to the blackboard to the students and back to him. U.S. History class with
Mr. Piper was another time when the teacher stood in front of the class. He paced sometimes, did some writing at the board
sometimes, but for the most part I remember him standing next to the window in the front of the class. I also remember that
students who sat in the front rows weren’t happy about their seats.
For the most part, when a teacher chose to sit instead of stand, he or she seemed to use the large desk as a Great Barrier Reef, protecting teacher from the sharks that were temporarily confined to their classroom seats. The teacher’s desk provided the same distance between teacher and student that standing positions seemed to create among the teachers who stood. Only one teacher that I knew at Manchester High School eliminated that barrier altogether. That was Helen Estes.
My long-time memory of Miss Estes finds her at her desk, which was far to one side of the classroom away from the door. Her chair is pushed back from the desk, and she sits, almost sideways in the chair, with one leg over the other, right elbow on knee, and head resting on her hand. Or she slouches over with her right arm leaning on the desk for support, as if she were having a pleasant visit with friends. Physical stature and presence meant nothing. Miss Estes was at our level, one of us and one with us as we did together whatever you do in a senior English class.
Like a talented parent who somehow makes each child feel as if it is the favorite, she seemed to consider our class the highlight of her day. She acted as if we entertained her immensely not only in our interactions with her but also in our discussions with our fellow students. Most teachers seemed intent on isolating student from student, but she was a connoisseur of group dynamics. No other class of mine at Manchester High School or anywhere else for that matter developed a group persona the way our class did under her careful and invisible guidance. She helped us to become ourselves with one another and seemed to like the results.
The odd thing about Miss Estes’ class is that I don’t remember learning anything in particular. Maybe we learned about iambs and spondees, dramatic irony, nice distinctions between parody and satire, or how to spell receive, neighborhood and weigh. And maybe not. I am certain that learning did take place, but because the learning seemed so effortless and painless it was no different from breathing. What I do remember learning there, and in no other English class, was the pleasure of reading, writing, speaking and hearing the English language. And like everything else in her class, this experience was so subtle that only now as I focus on that classroom 49 years ago do I realize the immense gift she gave us.
The photograph appearing at the start of this article was part of Miss Estes' résumé and appears through the generosity of Manchester High School. A special thanks to Superintendent of Schools Alan Beitman for his efforts and cooperation in obtaining this photo.
Reproduced 2011 from www.mhs1955.com with permission of its webmaster Dick Jenkins.
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