When people talk about what is wrong with American education today, at the end of the day most of the answers come back as some variation of “there aren’t more teachers out there like George Barron used to be”.
George Barron was my high school chemistry teacher…sort of. He passed away late last month.
I say he was “sort of” my chemistry teacher because it didn’t really go well. I mention this lest you think that this is going to turn into one of those Pollyanna-ish stories about teachers – Stand and Deliver or Mister Holland’s Opus or Watch Misplaced Teacher Turn The Meth-Heads Into Math-Heads or whatever – where some plucky teacher triumphs over the recalcitrant kid (and the system that keeps them down, natch) and teaches everyone the Big Lesson by the end of the story. It’s not.
Well, not directly. Indirectly, it very much is. But we’ll come back to that.
A solid generation before I took his chemistry class, George Barron was – or so I was told – a Navy dive-bomber pilot. He didn’t talk about the war – none of the small group of teachers that were WWII veterans ever did – although he did make sure we knew that, during the war, he trusted his life to a tailgunner not much older than we. Us, on the other hand? He didn’t trust us to fetch donuts from the bakery. We had a way to go before we got there.
Judging by old high school annuals, Mr. Barron got out of the Navy, came to Jamestown, and became a chemistry teacher. I know he was teaching when my father was a student, back in the fifties; he was still there when my dad came back to teach in the mid-sixties, and he was still teaching in 1979 when I was a sophomore in high school. His legend preceded him; you learned a lot from his classes (Jamestown High School produced an inordinate number of doctors and scientists in those days, all of them alums of Barron’s classes), but he was tough. .
I was not. Not academically, at least. I’d spent 9th and 10th grade bored out of my skull; English was a mind-numbing reiteration of grammar classes; History was taught by football coaches who had read less of the material than I had; but for languages (three years of German), Orchestra and Stage Band, I had pretty well checked out.
Which wasn’t a great start.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, as we were signing up for next year’s classes, we got a mimeographed sheet from Mr. Barron explaining that:
- People who wanted to go to college took Chemistry. People who wanted to go to Vocational school took “Practical Chemistry” from Barron’s associate, Mr. Scherbenske. People who wanted neither, took neither.
- He was tough, and made no excuses for it. He had standards, and if you didn’t measure up, you’d get an “F”.
The page included a list of students who’d succeeded, and students who’d dropped the class – which struck me as a little odd at the time. But I signed up anyway.
Of course, on top of everything else my junior year, Chemistry hit me like a truck. Oh, Mr. Barron’s class hit everyone like a truck – but I was really, truly not ready for that. I was disorganized, didn’t really have the math down, and just could not keep up.
I’d love to say there was an inspirational speech, or some moment standing at the blackboard trying to calculate a reaction where I had a blinding flash of epiphany that would be presented in a movie with a montage of late-night studying, slow improvement, and cutaway shots of Mr. Barron’s implacable grimace slowly softening into the hint of a smile.
But that’s Hollywood. Me? I cratered. After my first six-weeks’ grade (a solid “F”), I dropped the class. No, I didn’t switch to study hall; I managed to talk my way into Latin I; I started seven weeks behind the rest of the class, and caught up by the end of the semester.
My other classes? I jumped from the C’s and D’s and occasional F’s of my first two years of high school to mostly A’s and B’s. This was also my first year at the radio station – and I threw myself into that as well, and learned a lot of radio by the end of the year. Part of it was that I was finally taking classes I cared about, and taking them from teachers who actually cared about the material themselves – my dad’s speech class, writing and a few others in particular.
Part of it was to not only live down, but expunge the stench of “quitting”.
Toward the end of my junior year, a sophomore friend handed me a copy of Mr. Barron’s mimeograph for the next year’s class. My stomach fell down my leg in an icy ball of confusion; I was listed among the kids who’d dropped the class.
My first reaction was to hunt him down and make him eat a bunson burner. But the girl who’d sat behind me in class – let’s call her Lori – said “he’s just putting you out there as an example of a smart kid who didn’t gel with the class”. It may have been BS, but I felt a little better.
The main point being, I spent the rest of that year, and the next, living that scarlet “Q” down. And through four years of college, where I averaged over 20 credits a semester. And the decades since, where in trial after trial, “don’t quit” has been the only real palatable solution.
And I owe that to Mr. Barron.
His “practical chem” colleague, another former Barron student, and my dad’s chess partner, Mr. Scherbenske, wrote a memorial to Mr. Barron in my hometown paper that sums the man up pretty well.