Six years ago, in early September, our teenager brought home a reading list like something out of graduate school.
“Omigod, my English teacher is a-maaazing,” she declared. There was a pause while I checked my hearing. Understand that our daughter was not, shall we say, president of the peppy overachiever club of Laguna Beach High School. There was a lot of dressing in black, a lot of hanging out at the beach, a lot of incense.
“Details!” I cried. I had a knack for inciting epic annoyance.
“Um, yeah. Maybe later.” She fled to her room.
When I met the teacher, the mystery deepened. Mrs. Dunlap was great, but she also was supposedly the nemesis of every college-bound sophomore and senior—and a far cry from our child’s usual idea of a star. She was precise and soft-spoken; she moved like a dancer. Her suit was immaculate, a perfect silk scarf at its collar. It was back-to-school night. A quote from Pascal decked the wall. Notes on Homer covered her whiteboard. She brandished Strunk and White, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. “This is a challenging class,” she told us. Translation: Don’t even think about grade inflation.
The parents exchanged worried glances. Then as now, scores and rankings were serious issues. Then as now, unprecedented numbers of children were competing for college. Our teenager had done well before, but lately she was scarcely crossing her t’s, let alone wading for fun through grammar manifestos and doorstop-sized novels. When we got home, I barged into her room and demanded that she let me proofread her first English paper. Epically annoyed, she kicked me out.
What goes on between kid and teacher, I wondered as the school days went by. Night after night, our daughter toiled over her English, her head bowed, her little nose ring glinting. Hours of reading. Imagery, symbolism, grammar. Drafts and drafts of papers and papers. Never had I seen a beach kid work so hard to please an authority figure. Mrs. Dunlap had said “challenging” and she had meant it. No shortcuts. No extra credit. There was no way my child would survive this class and get into college.
I chatted up the teacher, scheduled meetings. She greeted me with that helpful smile and impeccable wardrobe. Then she continued to nail our daughter for every needless word and unsupported conclusion. Nothing I did could interfere with what was going on in that classroom. The semesters ground by, mid-terms, finals. When the year-end grades came in, our eyes flew straight to English: The A did not materialize.
Our daughter did not come away empty-handed, however. Two years later, she and her classmates graduated with extraordinary writing skills. They understood literature with a depth that will serve them for a lifetime, and Mrs. Dunlap wrote most of them college letters of recommendation. Some went into philosophy, medicine, international relations. Our daughter became an English major. Her training has earned her summer jobs at magazines and publishing houses. Unlike her mother, she is precise and soft-spoken. When she assesses something, she doesn’t exaggerate or understate it. She doesn’t trust shortcuts and extra credit. You should hear her on Dickens and Dostoevsky. Her work clothes are immaculate.
What alchemy transpired between that elegant teacher and that room full of beach kids? It still seems a miracle and a mystery. And maybe a moral, as this school year begins without the now-retired mentor who so inspired our daughter: There is school, with its scores and rankings and ever more serious issues—and then there’s an education. Parents sometimes forget the difference. But Mrs. Dunlap will know what I mean.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.