Celebrities Remember Their Favorite Teachers


 J. Marvin Herndon's contribution from the book
Celebrities Remember Their Favorite Teachers


Behind every successful individual is a very special teacher. Some of us are fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from more than just one very special teacher. As a young scientist, I was invited into a rare situation, the chance to be an apprentice to two masters, who had themselves learned from masters. One was Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey who, as a young man, had learned from Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, recognized as the father of atomic physics. The other was Hans E. Suess, a noted geochemist, who had learned from his father, Fritz Suess, also a noted geochemist, who had learned from his father, Eduard Suess, an even more famous geochemist. Imagine being the recipient of scientific know-how that was passed down through generations of masters. I could write a book on the subject and, perhaps someday, I will. But there was a very special teacher, not nearly so distinguished, who made a profound difference in my life.


Fall, 1959, the first day of class at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School was about to begin. “Who”, I asked a senior, “is Mrs. McNamara, my assigned 10th grade English teacher?” He just laughed and mumbled something about my being in deep trouble.  Soon, I understood what he meant. It wasn’t just that Mrs. McNamara had a reputation for being strict and for awarding low grades. Her classes were unlike anything I had ever experienced. She had a pattern of activity that she repeated again and again. We would have a literature reading assignment for homework. The next day, when we came to class, there would be two or three topics on the blackboard related to the homework assignment. We were expected to write an in-class theme about one of the topics. The following day, she would return the corrected and graded themes and each person would be called in turn to stand in front of the class and to read aloud his/her theme. The class was expected to criticize that theme, or the grade of everyone in class would be reduced.


The first time that I experienced her read-write-criticize method, I had not bothered to read the homework assignment and had scribbled some nonsense for the theme. Imagine my humiliation, standing before my peers, exposing my poor performance. There was never ridicule; no one would be brave enough, or foolish enough, to do that in Mrs. McNamara’s class. The humiliation came from within and along with it came a conviction not to let it happen again.


Mrs. McNamara kept all of our written work in folders; it was easy to see the vast improvements in writing that had taken place. What was not so easy to see was the internal transformation that had taken place, at least for me. It is sometimes easy for young people to see themselves in an unrealistic way, to rationalize their way through life. What Mrs. McNamara forced me to do was to see myself as others see me and, having done that, I could improve me. And I did. Thank you, Mrs. McNamara.


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