I have benefited from many excellent teachers in my life. Each one left me a little better than the first day I walked into their classrooms.
One of the more influential of those instructors died last week. Sue Knott was 74, but I remember her as a young, spirited and controversial teacher during my senior year at Jefferson High School.
She taught a current events class… with an edge.
I was a cocky 17-year-old with little understanding about contrary views. My world was narrow and safe.
Miss Knott changed that by undoing that safety net. She challenged her students to keep up on what was happening and to consider other views.
In 1972, race was still a dominant issue, and we focused on it in class. One day Miss Knott, who was white, made a black student stand up and say, “I’m black and I’m proud.” I can still feel the tension of that morning as Miss Knott urged him on.
She made each of us read a book by or about someone of another race. I read Muhammad Ali’s Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee. Back then, Ali was a highly controversial figure because of his affiliation with the Black Muslims and his decision to forgo the draft.
One of my classmates, John League, remembered Miss Knott fondly. “I was a horrible high school student, but I read the Washington Post every day,” League remembered Sunday as we chatted about our former teacher. “I suddenly went from being an ‘also ran’ to somebody who actually knew something.”
League, who went on to become publisher of the Hagerstown Herald-Mail newspaper, said, “I looked forward to the class every day. That was a rare occurrence.”
Miss Knott also required us to read one of the news magazines of the time. I chose Newsweek, and kept that subscription until a few years ago.
For League, me and others who embraced the class, Miss Knott stirred something in us. She pushed the boundaries and tossed the conventional wisdom aside. She enlightened us without indoctrination.
I got another lesson later in life from Miss Knott. I bumped into her once in Shepherdstown years after graduation and told her how much her class had meant to me and my career.
She stared at me for a moment and said “thanks,” but she really didn’t remember me. Yet another lesson from Miss Knott–humility.
Today I often have to remind myself of Miss Knott’s lessons, to push back against the safety of what I already know or think I know. The key is to keep learning and to have the courage to consider other points of view that contradict mine.
That can be uncomfortable and even disturbing, just as Miss Knott would have wanted.