This series of posts on my teachers was inspired by Steven Dunn’s social media feed asking people to comment if they had a black teacher. My previous post was about Mrs. Cromarty, one of two black teachers I had during my K-12 years.
Ms. Witwer was my 8th grade Social Studies teacher at Northwest Junior High in Coralville, Iowa. Like almost all of my K-12 teachers, Ms. Witwer was white, good natured, and a dedicated professional. She was a superb teacher. Even now, I recall her ability to scaffold lessons, address diversity and difference in a predominately all-white student class. (It was just Ritu and myself. Aloha Ritu. Asian solidarity fist bump wherever you are!) Ms. Witwer taught to a wide range of abilities and yet, no one felt bored or lost. This is no easy task.
Below are some highlights learned in Ms. Witwer’s class:
- Beauty is Subjective
- Israel and Palestine: Listen to the Stories
- Women: Ms. Makes Sense and the Equal Rights Amendment is Good
- The Indian Caste System: Inequality
- Some People Have Six Fingers
MS. WITWER: ON BEAUTY
We learned the idea of beauty as subjective in a fascinating way. She showed slides of all different kinds of people. I recognized one: a movie star. It was Marilyn Monroe. She did not elicit cheers from 8th grade boys in the 1970s. Boys did not like her and thought she looked yuck—too adult, too curvy with make-up. Instead, they liked the image of the young slender woman with the long 1970s heather hair, the kind of woman that looks make-up free and appears in shampoo advertisements wearing earth tone clothing with sunlight streaming down on her shoulders. There were many images that passed by, and I remember there was a moment of feeling tense—would there be someone like me? I can’t remember if someone Asian was shown. But I remember thinking that it was strange that everyone thought different people were beautiful: who they liked and who they didn’t and afterwards, I think that we thought, just for a moment, how difference was okay, and realized that some people would be found beautiful by some, and some by others.
MS. WITWER: ON ISRAEL-PALESTINE
I remember coloring in maps and making a video. We got divided in half and then were assigned roles to play. If you played an Israeli, you wore a yarmulke. If you played a Palestinian, you wore a keffiyeh. Students preferred to wear a keffiyeh which seemed quite exciting back then. Just remembering now: many years after Ms. Witwer’s class I wore a black and white keffiyeh when I went to university. Each student read out loud short monologues telling an individual story with the text declaring our reasons for our beliefs and politics and histories. There was excitement as we watched ourselves read from the podium in our costumes on the black-and-white video playback. It’s significant to note that both sides spoke. I recall being surprised in high school and in college that people were stridently anti-Palestinian. When I would hear this type of rhetoric, I would think back to Ms. Witwer.
MS. WITWER: ON BEING A MS. AND THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
Ms. Witwer was one of many teachers back then who reviewed to students the difference between Ms/Miss/Mrs.. By now, the 1970s were in full swing; the lesson of labels for women was introduced and Ms. was embraced. I am astounded by the number of students who continue to address all women teachers (of a certain age) by Mrs., and who fail to grasp the significance of this label. Women can be called whatever they want to be called, but it strikes me as strange given that it’s 2020. Then again, the US will achieve gender equity in 200 years, so it reflects our time.
Ms. Witwer discussed the position of women in our class across all cultures. Students I knew in Iowa, the 8th grade crowd of smart intellectual boys and girls all sported our ERA-NOW t-shirts. Ms. Witwer was a feminist teacher. My 8th grade spring triumph was winning the Optimist Club speech contest with my speech on why the Equal Rights Amendment should be ratified. I didn’t win the state competition. The winner wrote and spoke on diabetes. Mom said that was because the judges didn’t support the Equal Rights Amendment. She’s probably right. I wrote a damn good speech and was a serious debater in junior high. My speech was awesome.
I got to Andover a year later, in 1978. Every girl in my dorm laughed at me when I repeated my speech. There’s Steph, that WEIRD girl from IOWA—that backwards place! Equal rights for women was a subject that was to be avoided at Andover (still reeling from the trauma of co-education); we discussed Greek myths. Myths are cool; so is gender equality. When my dormmates laughed about my ERA knowledge, I thought about Ms. Witwer. She had my back as a girl. She had all of our backs, pushing us all into the light.
MS. WITWER: ON THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM
This was a brilliant teaching exercise. We colored a map of India. We drew slips of paper out of a box or a hat, and then were assigned a caste. I had thought, no problem, but then, surprise, surprise, I got ‘Untouchable’? But I have an A in class! I tried to trade with someone—a Bhramin. No one wanted to be an Untouchable (there were a few of us). Ms. Witwer said, “No, Stephanie, you can’t trade.” I couldn’t believe it. Me, an Untouchable? I clearly needed that label! That week as an Untouchable was spent sweeping, picking up the pieces of trash on the floor, and passing out papers. It proved, of course, to be a lesson about any class system, and yes, about myself and what my own feelings were about class.
MS. WITWER: ON SIX FINGERS
Ms. Witwer showed us a picture of her baby at birth. Her baby had six fingers. Everyone looked quite closely; it was a picture of much interest to all of us. Ms. Witwer told us she had her child’s finger removed because she didn’t want her child to face difficulties due to this difference. I thought a lot about what it meant to chop off a finger! Wow. But then too, what would mean to have an extra finger. Would anyone bully someone with six fingers? Again, she was generous to share the complications of difference as it occurred in her own life with us.
MS. WITWER: THE GLOBE
There were so many other lessons: Apartheid in South Africa (this was also covered in my 6th grade classroom), Japanese American internment (first taught to me by my mother), the Vietnam War, and most significantly, the vocabulary words ‘prejudice’ and ‘ethnocentric’ — those we had to learn, study, and discuss. I had more formal instruction about issues of contemporary difference and tolerance in a single year of Ms. Witwer’s social studies class at Northwest Jr. High School in Coralville, Iowa than I had during my four years at Phillips Academy Andover! Never underestimate how a single teacher can impact a life and where that teacher may be found.
Thank you, Ms. Witwer, for prioritizing knowledge and difference, for letting the world into that classroom in Iowa, for introducing, in a small and big way, the globe to me.