I’ve likely thought more about my childhood teachers than most people have, being a teacher myself. There are many I will be forever grateful to and strive to emulate: Mrs. Slinger, the 2nd grade teacher who taught each of the Poulson children and always treated her students with patience and genuine tenderness; Mrs. Nigon, an eccentric and ancient 4th grade teacher who introduced me to some of my now-favorite children’s literature, but whose memory in my mind always conjures up images of dry, cracked, Birkenstock-clad feet, and the scent of endless bags of extra-butter popcorn; Mr. Belanger, my awkward yet sincere 6th grade English teacher who always made me feel smart and boundlessly capable. However, the teacher I remember most is one whose memory is accompanied by feelings of injustice, frustration, regret, and pity; Mr. Diamond.
Mr. Diamond began teaching orchestra in my hometown while my older sisters were just beginning to play. He taught at all four elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school. There was no escaping him. My sisters grumbled about him occasionally, as most students do at one time or another with all of their teachers. However, when I entered the 5th grade and time came for me to “choose” which instrument I would play (as if there was an option; of course, I would learn viola, just like Maren and Kelly. We already owned two, and the three of us could share for a year until Kelly graduated high school), I began orchestra eager to become a real musician, despite Mr. Diamond’s reputation.
And I instantly enjoyed it. My meager musical background in piano put me leagues ahead of the other students, and I naturally had a good ear that made it easy to play in tune and pick out the viola harmonies. My elementary school orchestra class (all seven of us) only met once a week and all I wanted to do was play when we got there. But time had to be spent practicing rhythms and learning to sight read. In hindsight, I realize I was likely an obnoxious know-it-all.
“Yeah, the fourth note gets one beat. Can’t we just play now?”
“It’s called a quarter note, Jesslyn.”
“But a quarter is the same as a fourth, Mr. Diamond.” I thought I had a valid point, but also part of me was glad to see that it bothered him.
In all fairness, however, the two of us got on decently well that year. I was the class clown and he laughed at my jokes; we had a fun rapport. But that all changed in 6th grade when I started middle school. Suddenly, in a class of 27 rather than seven, my jokes were unappreciated, unwelcomed, and elicited harsh responses. After leaving the class in tears multiple times in the first weeks of school, I quickly learned to sit down, keep my mouth shut, and just play.
But this didn’t seem to stay his wrath towards me. One day, he let the whole class know just how he felt about me.
“Did you know I’ve taught Jesslyn and both of her sisters? Kelly, the oldest, she was alright, I guess. Maren, she is a snot and I don’t particularly like her. And then there’s Jesslyn, and you know how awful she is. She’s the worst of them all.”
Another time, he announced, “My favorite of the Poulson children is the brother. He’s the only one I haven’t had to teach. In fact, my favorite member of Jesslyn’s family is her dad: I’ve never met him.”
He seemed to take pleasure in exacting punitive measures against us all, especially me. One day, the hairs on my worn-out bow broke and needed to be repaired. Another girl in the class volunteered to let me use her extra one. Mr. Diamond refused to let her, saying that it was my fault that my bow had broken and, as punishment, I would have to pluck my strings in rehearsal until I got my bow back, two weeks later.
Soon, my daily tears changed into an iron resolve to never do or say anything that could fuel his fire against me, and a determination to not let him upset me by anything he said. But even this was cause for harassment. He openly gloated that he’d forced me into submission, but that at my core, he knew I was still a brat.
So I changed my approach. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” my mom always said. I went out of my way to be kind and pleasant. I complimented his ties. I thanked him at the end of every class. I was the first to volunteer any time he needed help. I always said how much I enjoyed the songs we played. When two of the three cellists quit (he was a notoriously mean teacher and no one liked his class), I convinced my parents to let me switch temporarily to cello to help the orchestra. No matter that I really was trying to be genuine, I think it was in his mind phony and insincere. By 7th grade, I’d accepted that he’d never like me and I gave up trying and focused on enjoying the music.
It was this year that my second sister, Maren, was a senior in high school. Unable to endure Mr. Diamond any longer, she decided to quit orchestra at the end of the first semester. This meant that I could finally upgrade to using her slightly larger viola, as I’d outgrown my beginner one. She gave it to me one day and said it was mine. I asked her if she’d need it during finals week but she told me that the final exam was a written one, so she was completely finished with the instrument.
I went to class next day, excited to try out my new viola. As I tuned it at the beginning of class, Mr. Diamond walked by and asked, “Isn’t that your sister’s?”
“Yes, but she doesn’t need it anymore so she gave it to me.”
“Well, that means she’ll be failing her final today if she doesn’t have it. She’s going to be so mad and it’s going to be your fault.”
“Could you take it to her when you go to the high school today?,” I asked in a panic.
“It’s not MY job to chauffeur around YOUR instrument because YOU did something stupid.”
I fought off tears of worry the rest of class. Maren was going to fail orchestra because of me. I could have sworn she’d said she hadn’t needed it, but I had to find a way to get it back to her. I bolted out of class as soon as the bell rang and sprinted to the office. I called my mom again and again but with no answer. I remembered that my German teacher also taught at the high school in the afternoons. I ran to her classroom, hoping she hadn’t left yet. Sobbing, I pleaded with her to please take the viola and make sure Maren got it before her final that day. She gave me a Kleenex, hugged me, and assured me she’d get it to my sister in time.
After school, I was anxious for Maren to get home. When she arrived, however, she was confused.
“Jess, why did you have Frau bring me the viola today? I told you I was finished with it already.”
“Mr. Diamond said you needed it and you’d get and F if you didn’t have it.”
“No. I was a written final, just like I said. No one had their instruments.”
I was confused. He’d told me she was going to fail without it. I was sure of it. When I asked him about it the next day, he just laughed.
“Yeah, she didn’t need it. But it was pretty funny that you were so worried about it.”
And that was the last straw. As much as I loved music and playing, I couldn’t endure his maliciousness towards me. I was already too emotionally fragile trying to get through middle school without having to deal with a hateful teacher. I finished off the school year but didn’t sign up for orchestra the next.
Even after I quit, just the thought of him infuriated me. I enjoyed hating him. I loved relating all the awful stories about the injustices I’d suffered to anyone who would listen. I liked passing him in the school hallways and knowing I’d escaped him.
I clung to the resentment for a long time. I’d just been an 11 year old kid. Why had he treated me that way? Didn’t he know he was wrong? Couldn’t he see that all my other teachers had loved me? Didn’t he recognize that he had been unfair?
Maybe it was because he thought I was an obnoxious kid who needed to be put in her place. Maybe it was because he was gay and he knew that my family was Mormon, and thus perceived some prejudice. Likely, it wasn’t either of those reasons, but was something that I wouldn’t ever know.
Eventually, I began to realize that it didn’t matter why. I had no reason to hate him like I did. I had no reason to feel resentful for, in hindsight, small wrongdoings. Even if he was at fault then, it had no bearing on my current life. My feelings toward him began to soften. I felt badly that I had judged him so harshly and felt so spiteful toward him.
In the end, the whole experience was one of many that has shaped my beliefs about mankind in general. I believe that almost all people are genuinely trying their best to do what they feel is right. I believe few people are consciously malicious or mean-spirited. Everyone does and says insensitive things, some of which they realize later and many of which they’ll never know about. We can never know someone’s true intents or fully understand their perspective or situation. For that reason, I now know that it is important to be merciful, to be forgiving, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to treat them kindly. So, perhaps, Mr. Diamond taught me the most important lesson of all.