THANK YOU, MISS KOPP

Yesterday I wrote about a bad teacher.

Today I write about a good one — Janice Kopp.

Miss Kopp was my 6th-grade teacher. She was strict, scary, a grammar fanatic, and … utterly heroic. She remains one of the two or three best teachers I ever had, at any level. She once assigned me a project on the values and beliefs of ancient Romans. She once assigned me to read and write about A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, in sixth flipping grade.

She once made me and my classmates stand up, one by one, to recite from memory the full list of English-language prepositions.

About …

Above …

Across …

After …

I can still run through the first handful anyway.

But the day I’ll never forget started with a seemingly harmless question. She asked why we study history, as a subject.

A whole host of us gave decent, good-enough answers, but … good enough was never okay for Miss Kopp.

Nope!

Not even close!

SORRY!

We sat there giving answer after answer, each one rejected loudly by Miss Kopp. At first she enjoyed rejecting the answers, but with each incorrect response her tone grew angrier and more insistent, until finally we were reduced collectively — she and 25 sixth-graders — to a long, and I mean longgg, silent stalemate.

As a class, we realized we did not have the answer, and Miss Kopp wasn’t going to move on to any other topic, any other question, any other conversation of any kind, until one of us stepped up to the plate and gave the correct answer.

I don’t know how long we sat there. It felt like forever. We were just basically waiting for the bell to ring so we could escape her withering glare, the furious face of a teacher who knew we could do better.

And then my classmate Billy Bishop, god bless him, pulled the answer right out of the ether and quietly delivered us from our collective agony.

“Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it?” he said tentatively.

I don’t know where in the hell 6th-grade Billy Bishop heard this phrase. I don’t know whether he could have told you himself, that day, where he’d heard it.

Who. The. Fuck. Knows.

My point is, Miss Kopp — in 1978, at Chevy Chase Elementary School — went full Socratic method on us. And it worked.

When Billy quietly offered up that answer, Miss Kopp slapped the desk in front of her as loud as I’ve ever heard anyone slap anything. She shot out of her chair.

In that moment I didn’t know whether she was going to leap across the desk and strangle Billy, for giving a wrong answer, or come running out to hug him, for giving the right one.

She did neither. Her loud slap was enough to break the spell, to vent her furious jubilation.

“THAT!” she shouted, pointing at him, jabbing her finger in the air. “THAT is why we study history!”

And that was it. Class dismissed.

I tell you this story today because: a) it was a highly effective — if also terrifying and somewhat deranged — teaching method, one which permanently lodged the “condemned to repeat it” quote at the core of my brain, and b) in my opinion, America could stand to contemplate the same question today — why do we study history?

We were born in 1968 — me, Billy Bishop, most others in that classroom. We were in our mother’s wombs when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. We were born into a world which bears striking similarities, in hindsight, to the fractured, frazzled, polarized spot where our nation is now.

I’m not going to bother arguing which year was scarier — 1968 or 2020.

I’m not going to bother telling you whether to vote for or against Trump.

I’m just going to tell you what I believe.

The killing of Dr. King was an appalling, pivotal tragedy.

So was the killing of Bobby Kennedy.

So was the Vietnam War. Many thousands died in that war, including Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, French, Chinese, Russian, and South Koreans, to list just some of the countries.

Which leads me to my second example of extraordinary teaching.

I never knew much about Marianne Williamson. I was dimly aware of her as a self-help author. And then all of a sudden she was on stage with other presidential candidates at the Democratic debates four months ago. 

Huh, I thought. Odd, but okay.

And then I forgot about her.

But last week my friend Camille Landau directed me to a podcast interview Williamson did last year. 

At the 36-minute mark, Williamson starts describing her father. She describes his background, his profession, his personality. And then she recounts a parenting moment which made my jaw drop.

As a 7th-grader, Marianne Williamson came home from school one day repeating what she’d learned in a social studies class.

Our country needs to go to war in Vietnam because countries are like dominoes, and if one domino falls … And so on.

Her father stood up and bellowed to his wife.

“Sweetheart! Get the visas! We’re going to Saigon!”

And … they did.

The family went to Vietnam.

This was 1965. The father took his family to the other side of the world to show them a country which was already starting to experience war and which would soon experience horrifying levels of death and destruction. He wanted his kids to have a visceral, human understanding of a country — a country, not a freaking domino — which would soon be enveloped in chaos and agony.

I can’t imagine being this brave, principled, or — frankly — insane. (Nor can I imagine successfully organizing my wife and kids on any project, let alone a voyage to a war-torn country. But that’s a separate problem.)

But today I say, god bless Marianne Williamson’s father.

And god bless my teacher Miss Kopp.

And god bless teachers who give enough of a damn to make us temporarily uncomfortable in order to wake us up, in order to nudge — or perhaps shove — us toward our better angels.

Whether he realized it or not, the person Billy Bishop was quoting that day was Winston Churchill, who himself was paraphrasing the writer George Santayana.

Santayana’s line was, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The person who speaks to me — across time — is Dr. King.

He’s the better angel I try to tune into now, as I contemplate what my family needs, what my city needs, what the country needs, what the guiding principles should be.

People remember King’s leadership of the civil rights movement. But they may forget that he was saying the right things on other topics, too, right up to the very end.

His speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967 brought an avalanche of criticism from all quarters, including the Rev. Billy Graham, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and newspapers across the U.S.

In hindsight, of course, he was right about Vietnam. He was dead right.

And then he was … well, dead.

He was assassinated.

As was Bobby Kennedy.

As was Mahatma Gandhi.

As was the historical Jesus Christ, for that matter.

A message of radical love, tolerance, and non-violence can lead to homicidal violence against the messenger.

That’s because it’s a revolutionary message.

And powerful people are scared of revolutions.

But it doesn’t mean the message is wrong.

NAPALM

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, HEROES, MY CHILDHOOD, POLITICS, SAYINGS, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to THANK YOU, MISS KOPP

  1. Aristos Marinos says:

    Kitt, during these uneasy times I appreciate the time taken through your storytelling to remind us all of the lessons forgot. I hope you and the family are doing well.

  2. This is one of your best, and the competition is tough.

  3. Andy Billig says:

    Thank you, Kit! Thoughtful and powerful.

  4. Alice Clark Coogan says:

    Love this Kit. I had Ms. Kopp as well. I have very fond memories of Ginny’s little brother.

  5. Stefanie Zadravec says:

    my rome project was : Ancient Rome: who what when where and why. At first i was pissed because very one else got a neat little topic, but then, like you, i realized she’s chosen me for a BIG one, and i was honored.

    i remember that on the first day she asked us how each of us would make history. and after a few lame answers like, “become president” or a movie star, athlete etc, someone ( and for the sake of brevity let’s say it was, again, Billy Bishop) “Vote!”

    It was unfortunate, years later, to look her up and discover that she’s MAGA all the way.

    i just bought my son a diagramming sentences book. They no longer teach grammar, if you can believe it. it’s one of those things the inquiry based curriculum assumes kids will suddenly intuit via osmosis but now that I’M the school marm, i’ve told my son, an extremely gifted writer and speller – that he’s gonna know this sh*t backwards and forwards. I did the same with arithmetic at the end of fourth grade. after seeing him correctly setting up multi step word problems and then get all the arithmetic wrong- i left the 4 math problems a week school
    and made him drill the basics. after 2 months his math ERB went from 60th percentile to 95th. and this year he was top of his class in math and inviting into math enrichment. the last school started in with “ perhaps he has learning issues- and i was like – there’s no way someone as bright as M can’t multiply.

    i am miss kopp without the drag makeup

  6. Stefanie Zadravec says:

    Also, I still know the prepositions until P and then it all falls apart

  7. Jane Davis says:

    Kit, Miss Kopp made as deep an impression on you as Marianne Williamson made on me many years ago in Los Angeles.. one of the most brilliant extemporaneous speakers I’d ever heard.

    • kittroyer says:

      So cool that you got to see her and learn from her in person! I was very impressed by her in the podcast interview. Thoughtful and insightful on a bunch of topics.

      • Jane Davis says:

        The only candidate in that long line up who repeatedly, and emphatically, addressed the
        deep trauma our nation’s children face. She’s for real.

        Loved this piece!

      • Aristos marinos says:

        There is no doubt that Kit has an amazing way of making the most mundane personal life story into something we can all learn from and/or relate to. New to his blog I’ve had the opportunity to read some of his personal trials and tribulations and my favorite is the one where Kit lost his fingertip to a squirrel he tried to save followed by a series of rabies Thus now explains why Kit is a little nuts.

      • kittroyer says:

        First of all, let me say, Thank you for your service, Aristos.
        Second, I am still working out my karma with squirrels. This was the first time in a few years the apricot tree in backyard produced a sizable quantity of fruit. And then the damned squirrels ate every. Last. One.

  8. I’m just amazed you and your readers remember so much of 6th grade. I have few memories that even add up to one sentence. Very impressive.

  9. Mike Thimmesch says:

    A fellow classmate just posted a link to this blog post on Facebook. Funny, because just two days ago I was telling my 21-year old daughter about the amazing Miss Kopp, and how the deep knowledge she imparted to me in her 6th grade English and History carried me all the way through 12th grade. Whenever we covered grammar from 7th grade on, it was almost always just a review of what we had learned in her class. I can’t imagine how many points lower my SATs would have been had I missed having her.

    I also hold Miss Kopp in my heart as one of the best teachers I ever had. My 6th grade class was from 1974 to 1975. It was the year Chevy Chase Elementary was closed down for the whole year for renovations. So our entire 6th grade class was bussed several miles (by Marge, the lead foot bus driver) to Burning Tree Elementary. We were not integrated with the Burning Tree kids, but kept in our own oasis in two classrooms. Miss Kopp is forever burned in my memory as a powerfully engaged teacher who kept her class in rapt attention. The science and math teacher? No recollection remains.

    Miss Kopp did not sit at a desk or stand behind a podium or walk around the class (three prepositional phrases for you in her honor). Her classroom had three long rows that went from one side to the other, and she sat on a chair in the center front of the class, just three feet away from the front row. Whether it was by chance or by her wily intuition of my potential inattention, she placed me in the hot seat directly in front of her. So while everyone else felt Miss Kopp at the phasers-set-to-stun level, I was walloped by her teaching (and makeup) at the phasers-set-to-kill level.

    I had a similar experience as Stephanie, above, with Miss Kopp, when she assigned us individual projects on Ancient Rome. While others got things like talking about Roman clothing or food, she assigned me to present on The Roman Republic — which covered nearly 500 years of history. I’d like to think she could see that I was up to the challenge, and wanted me to realize my potential. I was certainly inspired by her faith in me.

    Miss Kopp, if you read this, THANK YOU from me, too.

    • kittroyer says:

      This account is so beautiful and vivid. I especially love the part about variable stress levels depending on where you sat. And the shout-out to her enthusiastic embrace of makeup, lol.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and to add such powerful, detailed recollections of your own. I had same experience of feeling pretty much covered, grammar wise, through the rest of my education. I have no idea what the best, most current views of teaching methods are, but I know that I benefited deeply from the rigorous training on prepositions, gerunds, diagramming of sentences, etc. The way she taught it, you got the feeling it was of absolutely vital importance, going forward.

      Do you or any of your classmates know where she is nowadays? I would love to reach out and give her chance to hear some of these accounts. A great teacher, early on, changes lives, no question.

      • Mike Thimmesch says:

        Thanks, Kit. Your writing is so on point that it inspired me to level up. I don’t know if any of my classmates know where Miss Kopp is — TBH, half the reason I posted was that I figured your article was a beacon to get her attention, and she likely has read / will read it. That said, Stephanie Z commented above that she looked her up online, so I would ask her where she found her. I had searched without any such luck.

      • kittroyer says:

        Good idea. Will do.

  10. Gloria Soong says:

    How funny. Miss Kopp just popped into my head after so many decades. I was happy to see your Blog, Kit. I also remember being in the same class as Mike Thimmesch, and riding that bus with Marge, our fearless bus driver. She could maneuver through the most difficult and narrow of streets. How time flies.
    I remember Miss Kopp for the prepositions, the agonizing book reports, the current events project, and reciting The Pied Piper from beginning to end. I still have my current events project, because it is one of the ones that I am most proud of. She was always kind to me and I don’t remember her wrath. 🙂 I just remember the very challenging assignments. I learned so much from her and am still grateful to have had her as a teacher as well. They don’t make them like that any more!

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