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Teaching the old-fashioned way


My brother delivered the news last weekend. Five days a week, as this newspaper's night metropolitan editor, I oversee the obituaries. But it was my day off, and he spotted it first - alphabetically, at the top of the death notices.

"Eva Asbell died," he told me.

Maybe not my favorite teacher, but certainly my best, Miss Asbell taught me how to write, and since I'm a newspaperman, she taught me how to earn a living. I was an eighth-grader at Baltimore's Pimlico Junior High School back in 1958, and she taught English.

Nobody called it "language arts" back then. It was just English. And Miss Asbell, a disciplinarian in language as well as comportment, presided over the rules she imparted to class after class of adolescents.

We had to write down and memorize some three dozen rules of grammar and punctuation, and write and diagram sentences as this no-nonsense woman strode up one row of desks and down another, stopping occasionally to look over a shoulder as her black shoe tap-tap-tapped a cadence of learning.

Her reputation was well known among seventh-graders, who were apt to groan in anguish, as I did, on learning that promotion would bring a year of labor under the tutelage of Miss Asbell.

As a product of the city's public schools, I remember many of my teachers. As a reporter and editor here for nearly 36 years, I have written or edited the obituaries of some of these remarkable people - among them Dorothy Kratz, a kindergarten teacher for four decades at the long-closed Louisa May Alcott School No. 59, who - like Miss Asbell - died this year at the age of 94.

Who can say what lesson from a kindergarten teacher changed a life? Who, decades later, can remember much of anything from those days as a 5-year-old? The report card from 1951 reveals that I had trouble then remembering my address.

It was a very different era. During American Education Week, parents would crowd into their children's classrooms, seated on folding chairs to watch the lessons. Children were pushed by their parents to succeed, and most of my elementary school classmates at Louisa May Alcott eventually became college graduates. We had no cable TV - just a few local television stations - and no cell phones, pagers or computers. And there was no statewide achievement test to measure how the teachers and schools were doing. We had standardized tests, with scores called "percentiles" giving a picture of where we stood in various areas among our peers.

The tests and grades that mattered came in pop quizzes, chapter tests, homework assignments, day after day, along with endless drills that left me with an affinity for rules on the likes of subject-verb agreement and parallel construction. Words and ideas became puzzle pieces that magically fit together. For some students, numbers added up. For me - under the direction of Miss Asbell - words and grammar added up, with punctuation to mark the way.

My wife retired last year from teaching language arts. In part, her retirement was a result of burnout after 15 years in Anne Arundel County middle schools, her joy in teaching eroded by the systemic response to demands for school accountability in education. Schools were being judged by student performance on statewide tests, and in self-defense the classroom focus was turned to teaching test-taking. There was little room for literature, or creativity.

She could see the writing on her seventh-grade blackboard when there was no longer time for Jack London's classic novel The Call of the Wild. It's not on the test.

Societal changes also have had an impact on the learning environment.

There are far more single parents and working couples, and at home children are not pushed as hard to excel. Expectations for them seem lower than in years past. They are distracted by the prolific gadgetry of an electronic age, attention spans diminished by video games and TV commercial interruptions. And many, by middle school years, have had the innocence of childhood subverted by sex and substance abuse.

At the funeral in suburban Pikesville last Sunday, Rabbi Deborah Wechsler of Chizuk Amuno Congregation noted in her eulogy that in the Jewish tradition, wisdom is true wealth and teachers are revered.

Eva Asbell, she said, gave of her wisdom in Baltimore's public schools for close to half a century.

"To be honest, her students were terrified of her. She was strict and she was a disciplinarian, but they learned. Oh, how they learned," the rabbi said, adding that years later, many would pay a visit to tell Miss Asbell how the fundamentals of writing learned in her classroom got them through college English.

I attended the funeral at Sol Levinson & Bros. to pick up a photo and biographical information for an obituary that I felt, as a product of her labors, was owed to Miss Asbell. I was also curious to see if some other former student or an aging teacher from Pimlico might make an appearance. But there were just a few friends and her small family, including a younger sister - the sole survivor among four siblings born to Russian immigrant parents.

At 94, Miss Asbell had outlived most of her peers and an education system that worked.

Of the few men at the service, most were elderly. Her sister asked if I would be a pallbearer.

I had never called Miss Asbell to thank her - had not talked to her since June of 1959, when I was promoted to the ninth grade.

But last Sunday, I helped carry her to her grave, and it was an honor.

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