He runs into a former student, “Mr. Methvin, do you remember when you wrote a hall pass on a scrap piece of 2×4?”
His reply: “I thought you were going to a board meeting.”
That’s Harry Methvin. Hall of Fame faculty, St. Louis High School.
Like The Theme Song Of Gilligan’s Island, It All Begins With A Two…
It’s February. He’s 26, taking classes at McNeese. His father is dying. A construction job just ended. Someone tells him that St. Louis High School needs a substitute teacher – for two days – to spell a teacher who is having issues with her pregnancy.
“17 years later I taught that child as a student.”
In almost two decades at St. Louis he set a teaching standard, and made impressions on class after class of students who are now a Who’s Who both locally and afar.
Many regard him as their favorite teacher. Many regard him as one of their favorite people, period…
“Never Smile ‘Till Christmas”
Whether butcher, baker or candlestick maker, most of us have, at least at daydream level, wondered what it’d be like to be a teacher.
“What were your teaching principles?”
“Firm. Fair. Friendly. Consistent.” Boom, boom, boom, boom. Then his mustache twitches and he adds, “You also gotta be unpredictable.”
For most of his teaching career he taught 10th grade English. “They’re not going to remember a misplaced modifier, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.”
First day of class, right off the bat, he set the line, “This is my classroom. I was here first.”
“I’d tell them what I expected. And then I’d expect it.”
He grew up slightly north of poor, slightly north of DeQuincy. Now he was teaching city and suburb kids. He was also raised Baptist, now teaching in a private Catholic school. He started at St. Louis in February. Within weeks here came Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.
“They had a mass on Ash Wednesday. I didn’t know if I was supposed to go or not.” Playing it safe he went to the copy room, running papers on an old mimeograph machine. When mass was over the kids returned to class, each with the marks on their forehead. None of the kids, or faculty treated him any different, for having not attended mass.
“When I got home I looked at myself in the mirror,” where he found that he had mimeograph ink on his forehead. “It was divine intervention!” he says with a smile.
The Upper Room
All the classrooms at St. Louis are on the first floor, except Methvin’s. “We called it the Upper Room.” As fitting an English teacher, he never misses a chance for word play and puns, “It was the only classroom where you could get a ‘higher’ education.”
“The most important part of each class is the first five minutes and the last five minutes. You set the tone in the first five minutes. You gotta hook ‘em and then not lose them.”
Once upon a time, there was a class that ruined his first five minutes. They were talk, talk, so Methvin did the walk, walk. He closed his books, left the room, went down the stairs to his office, and did not return.
The next day, the same class waiting for him, no teacher. Time passed. A student came to the office. “Mr. Methvin, will you come teach us?”
“I don’t think you’re ready.”
On the third day the principal, Mr. Daniel Ieyoub, came to Methvin. “I just got a call from a parent that says you won’t teach his child.”
“You’re just trying to make a point, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
The point was made. And as it goes in schools, the word gets around, older students tell the tale, and new 10th graders arrive pre-sold, on rules and consequences.
Attention To Details
He had a seating chart. Did roll before the bell rang. With the bell, the teaching promptly began. “A class is 50 minutes. If you waste 5 minutes of each class that’s 10% of the class.” The 10% adds up to entire school days, when figured over a school year.
For true learning, “You gotta make them feel challenged, like they were in a battle,” and then he adds the hammer point, “but they need to come out the winner.”
If someone was inattentive, or uninvolved, or worse, misbehaving, Methvin was subtle in how he handled it. “If you corner a child, embarrass them in front of their peers, they’ll fight back.” Instead, Methvin used subtlety, patience and the power of good intentions, one on one.
Just as parents have to pick between being a parent or a friend, so too a teacher has to pick between being a teacher or a friend. Kids being kids, like it or not, serious works. He had a rule, “No smiles ‘till Christmas.”
Then he smiled. After Christmas…well…
Throughout our conversation Methvin kept using a word – endurance. He trusts endurance, knows it works in school, both in teaching and in learning, works in jobs, family, works for the whole of life. The word was learned at home, watching his parents fight the old battle of getting by, two steps forward, one step back. Endurance seeped into his lessons, a seed planted, a gift into the toolbox his students would take into the world of adulthood.
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This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one, where we applaud those who sow, sow, sow so that we won’t end up so so-so.
Other Bedtime Stories can be found on the Eighty-one Facebook page. Uncle P can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.