Note: all names, other than those of the interviewees, have been changed for this story.
During my sophomore year at Susquehanna Township High School (STHS) I was required to take a class called Environmental Studies. It was a general education course, one that included a mixed bag of students, and, as in all Gen Ed courses, no one was particularly excited to be there, especially our teacher, Mr. Smith. He had a ponytail at a time when no other male teachers had ponytails, and his classroom was filled with the corpses of taxidermied wildlife from the surrounding Pennsylvania forests, all of which had been stuffed by Mr. Smith himself. He was proud of that.
I imagine that Environmental Studies was proposed by the Susquehanna Township school board in an attempt to make us more “environmentally aware”—this was right around the time I first started hearing about concepts like Earth Day, diapers sitting in landfills, and the “hole in the ozone layer”– but that’s not what this Environmental Studies class was about. This class was about whatever Mr. Smith wanted it to be about. One day we watched a National Geographic documentary about the horrors of baby seal hunting. The documentary featured soft, furry baby seals, their wet black eyes blinking in the Arctic sun, getting their heads bashed in by masked men who wanted their precious fur.
The message of the documentary—that clubbing baby seals for their fur is barbaric—was lost on us. That’s because right after we watched those baby seals get their heads flattened, Mr. Smith paused the tape and rewound it so we could watch it all again. “Look at that!” I remember him calling out, his voice edged with excitement, “Bam! Bam! Bam!” It was clear that Mr. Smith enjoyed this brutality, that, perhaps, he might like to have a baby seal in the classroom to add to the dead-eyed gray squirrels and Allegheny woodrats that peeked down at us from shelves above our heads.
Mr. Smith also once told our class that he once spent an entire semester teaching his students incorrect information. He didn’t reveal his treachery until end of the semester, after the students had studied these false lessons and taken exams on them. When we asked Mr. Smith why he would waste his student’s time and his own time, told us he wanted to teach his students to never blindly trust authority figures. Today I find Mr. Smith’s fake lesson almost admirable, a kind of anarchic lunatic protest against the drudgery of teaching Environmental Studies to a bunch of bored surburban high school students. But at the time it was a total mindfuck — we had no idea if we should believe anything he tried to teach us after that. Were we being misled about the lifecycle of the May fly? Were prairie dogs *actually* “good eatin'”? (nota bene: “Are prairie dogs good eatin” was, in fact, a true/false question on the final exam that semester).
I also remember engaging in lively debates over politics with my History teacher/track coach, Mr. Brown, a man who actually seemed at home in the dreaded short-sleeved button-down shirt-and-tie combo favored by so many male high school teachers. He was a Republican blowhard and a neoconservative before the term ever existed. I don’t remember learning a thing about history in his class but I do remember learning how to argue endlessly with cranky neoconservatives, a skillset that has certainly served me well in life. Below, some of my classmates relate their favorite anecdotes about Mr. Brown:
Dani: “I remember asking Mr. Brown for directions to Franklin and Marshall College for an Indigo Girls concert…he said we would turn into hippie lesbians if we went to the show.”
Liz: “I remember the Indigo Girls incident. If I recall he asked why we would want to go see ‘a bunch of lesbians.’”
Molly: “I was recently thinking about Mr Brown’s History class, he would tell us to read page 146, then go have meetings with sports guys who were sitting in the back of the classroom waiting for him. He would also get very angry and try to talk himself down by counting backwards from 10 or walking into the hallway to punch a locker! His class was usually amusing”
Kara: “Mr. Brown told us he was as conservative as he was because his parents were hippies and he was actually taken to Woodstock as a kid… but he was lying and trying to tell us that our kids were going to be super conservative.”
Matt: “One class, Mr. Brown called us a bunch of knee jerk liberal pansies, who should have been slapped around by our parents”
Luimbe “Brown did ‘maturity training’ …heads down on a desk for 10 minutes after the bell rang because his straight-from-the-book lesson plans failed to keep our attention…That was the class where Benny the B [our classmate, Ben] dared to challenge the sanctity of Christopher Columbus’ virtue and argued for hours with Mr. Brown about it.”
Me “Lou, tell me more about Benny! What did he say?”
Luimbe “Christopher Columbus’ ethnicity was at issue. Brown vehemently disagreed with Benny’s assertion that there was some evidence or possibility that Columbus may have been secretly Jewish.”
I should pause for a minute now to say that I am quite pleased with the quality of my public high school education. I was challenged and encouraged during my 4 years at STHS and I was accepted to quality colleges (as were many of my classmates). But, still, I remain mystified by some of my teachers’ eccentricities. It’s hard to tell if we brought out the weird in our teachers, or if it was the other way around. Regardless, this post marks the first in a regular series where I interview people who went to high school with me, asking them to tell me their oddest stories. We begin this series with Tammy Tibbens Vasbinder and her experiences with Mr. Goldman, who taught History and also coached the basketball team.
How did you find yourself in a situation where your teacher was asking you to perform Mary Poppins in your classroom?
You know I love that movie. I’ve probably watched it 100 times.
Why did you watch it so often?
Um I don’t know. I just really loved the movie. I loved all the characters in the movie. I loved the singing…
And you memorized it?
And I memorized Rain Man and I memorized Forrest Gump…
I didn’t know that…
Yeah, all of it. Mr. Goldman would have to go and he would ask me to entertain the class…
Wait, where would he go?
[laughing] I don’t know…
What grade was this?
You know I should know that. Maybe 10th?
I’m going to say it was 10th too.
I don’t know where he would go but he would have to go…[laughing] So he would ask me to take over the class.
How did this even start? What gave him the idea to put you in charge?
That’s another “I don’t know.” Sometimes it’s a little of a blur. [laughs]
But he would have me take over the class. He’d say “Tibbs”—he called me Tibbs—“Tibbs, take over the class.”
I think we need to pause here for a minute. I think it’s weird that a high school teacher would leave during his own class. That’s the time when you’re supposed to be teaching your class.
He had shit to do.
He had shit to do that was not teaching his class….Okay so he would leave and then what would happen?
Sometimes I would do Rain Man, but usually I would just do different scenes from Mary Poppins. Remember the scene where the different animals sing?
[TT begins singing the chorus to “It’s a Jolly Holiday”]
I’d do all the different scenes. And I would get up on the windowsill…
That’s the way the story’s always been told to me—that you performed Mary Poppins on the windowsill. And what did the class do? They just watched?
Yeah, pretty much!
How long would that go on for?
Until Mr. Goldman came back.
How long is that?
Like maybe 15 minutes? [laughing]
And then he’d start teaching again?
And then he’d come back and say “Okay, Tibbs, you’re done.” And I’d sit down.
[Liz: “I was there!! It was high-larious. Mr. Goldman was a great guy but teaching was way down on his priority list. He had basketball games to win. He was happy to have Tammy entertain us instead. It was both shocking and endlessly entertaining. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”]
How often would you say that happened?
Maybe half a dozen times.
Yeah. It was…interesting.
Do you find that odd?
Yeah. It was a little… odd.
But you liked it.
I did like it. And actually when I took English with Mrs. Williams. senior year, she came to me and she said “Tammy, you’re failing. You’re going to have to retake the class.”
This was senior year?
Yeah. And I said, “No, I can do this.” And she’s like “No, you don’t understand: you have to get a 99 to pass this class this semester or you’re not going to graduate with your class.”
And I thought, “No I really can do it.” I really focused, I studied. I got together with all these other kids from high school…
Who did you get together with?
Um, you know…another [TT indicates that she is drawing a blank]. Maybe Talitha? I just remember reaching out to all the smart kids…
You didn’t reach out to me…[note: I said this with mock outrage]
I didn’t. I don’t think you were in my class.
Talitha was in my class….
She probably wasn’t in my class either!
I don’t know what it was, but she was smart… So I remember the final thing that was due…
Was it a paper?
I remember writing this skit out where I was in an insane asylum and I was all these different characters. I was Forrest Gump, I was Rain Man, and I was Mary Poppins. And I acted out the whole play.
Guess what my grade was?
100. And Mrs. Williams yelled at me at the end of the year. She was saying “If you would have applied yourself….”
But I did it. And I graduated.
But I’m sure somebody was in that class and that they remember. And maybe the smart people who tutored me remember.
I can fact check this before I publish. I remember hearing the Mary Poppins stories and I remember being jealous that I wasn’t in your World History class. I would hear all about your performances.
Yeah those were good times.
I think you would do it at parties sometimes, and that’s where I saw it, but I never saw it in class, on the windowsill.
Now I’m more into rapping.
Yeah. People make requests at parties.
What do you like to perform?
My standard is Slick Rick. The Indian story. It gets pretty…
Is it racist?
No, it’s not racist. It’s kind of dirty. I would do it but.,..[gestures towards restaurant]
No, you don’t need to do it here.
Did you witness Tammy’s windowsill performances? If so, share your memories below. Also, if you would like to be interviewed about your strange and wonderful experiences attending STHS, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set up an interview.
About the interviewee
You probably remember Tammy Tibbens as the curly haired jokester who enjoyed playing sports and entertaining her classmates. Since high school, Tammy (now Tammy Vasbinder), has had a successful career in Sales and Marketing. She was featured in a national publication called “Radio Ink” in October 2007 as one of the top 10 radio reps in the country. Tammy now enjoys raising her two children. Keeping screwdrivers out of the wall sockets and crayons out of the clothes dryer are now her biggest accomplishments.