As the day neared for my first day at Ruskin High School I found myself dreading it. I was getting tired of going to school. I was coming off of a three year stint at Smith-Hale Junior High School which I had gone through my eight grade year and my Freshman year in the system. My freshman year had been a roller coaster affair. The classes I had taken my freshman year were interesting and I had been lucky enough to have decent teachers, a couple of them were good teachers and one of them was a horrible excuse for a teacher. The horrible teacher was my composition/literature teacher and personally I did not think he should have ever been allowed to teach. I still feel that way up to this day. Because of the experience with that teacher, I had grown a distaste for any subject involving English. I knew I had more English courses ahead of me as I entered the home stretch of the public school system towards graduation in 1975.
It was the fall of 1972 when I first stepped into Ruskin as a student. I had mapped out a plan that hopefully would allow me to graduate at the semester break of my senior year. My sister had graduated just 3 months before with the class of 1972, and so I was the third one of us kids to enter the halls of Ruskin. My sister had seemed to enjoy her time there. She was involved in the pep club and the school choir and had lots of friends that I had come to know over the years. I don't know how much she really enjoyed Ruskin because the two of us did not do much talking to each other. Then again, I don't recall her ever complaining about the school, so I figured if I just kept to myself and did the work and put up with the teachers, I just might make it out early. That was my plan.
At the time Ruskin was experimenting with classes, trying to bring in a wider variety of subjects that might help hold the students interest and give us a better rounded education. They had introduced classes such as Russian History, Language of Film, and other new classes. Some of these caught my eye. I did take Russian History which I found fascinating and I took the film class which was okay, but more just something to fill my English requirements. There was another class being offered that sound right up my alley. It was called Literature of Protest. It was described as a study of some of the great literary works that served as protests to the way different classes were treated through out the world and through history. It was one of the first classes I signed up for at Ruskin and was able to get into it before it filled up. In reality though, there was not a chance that this class was going to be filled, which still kind of puzzles me. Some of my classmates that I had been going to school with my whole life seemed like they would be naturals for this kind of course but as I walked into the classroom that first day, I found myself to be the lone sophomore in the class. I became very nervous.
She walked into the classroom just a few minutes late. She was short but it didn't seem to bother her because she did not try to heighten herself with any kind of heel on her shoes but wore simple flats. She dressed very plainly. You would not find her in any bright colors or even dresses. She wore straight skirts that were usually dark in color and a blouse, sometimes white with a Mr. Rogers type sweater over it. Her hair was medium length coming down to just the top of her shoulders and was straight. She did not wear much makeup at all. She walked very straight and fast, seemingly not wanting to waste any time at all. For such a small person, she seemed to be a little intimidating.
Her name was Priscilla Belden. She was feisty and I felt like I was going to like her right away. The first words out of her mouth as she strutted into the classroom was directed at students that had been in her class before, or so it seemed. She was irritated. "What happened to my radio station over the summer??" she asked incredulously. She walked to the back of the room where I saw a radio receiver on the shelf and she reached up and turned it on followed by frantically trying to find a station that she wanted to listen to. She finally settled on some classical music, but it was obvious it wasn't her first choice. Then I spotted a familiar logo sticker on the shelf next to the radio. It was the logo for station KBEY 104.3. I was very familiar with KBEY. It was an FM station that had developed in the early days of FM rock. It was practically commercial free and played some of the most progressive underground rock that there was to be played. They played songs that lasted WELL over three minutes and by groups that most average music fans would not have heard of at the time. They played the San Fransisco sounds of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane as well as Iron Butterfly. Emerson, Lake and Palmer was a popular choice on the station as well as early Alice Cooper, The Band, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, just a lot of groups that never saw the light of day on the AM top forty stations. This station played hardcore hard rock twenty four seven and a lot of the songs they played would not be your ordinary love songs but songs of conscience that challenged the status quo of politics, art, and music. KBEY was your typical big city underground radio station and Ms. Belden apparently took it very seriously.
I had become acquainted with KBEY through my friend Scott (Warped Rolling Stones record, bull teaser, shoot me with a pellet gun Scott. If you have read my blog for a while, you have been introduced to Scott a few times and will understand that of course, it would be Scott that would listen to KBEY). Over the summer of 1972, KBEY had been bought by a national syndicate of radio stations that were spreading nationwide. They were known as the "SUPER Q" stations and their plan, which really was a good plan, was to bring AM top forty over to the FM side. KBEY had become KBEQ-SUPER Q over the summer. Ms Belden's underground social message hard rock was playing songs that did not sound like the songs she was use to hearing. She was hearing songs that kids in the seventh grade were swooning over. Ms. Belden was not a happy camper. As I would get to know her better during my years at Ruskin, I would find out that she was from Minnesota and went and stayed with her family during the summers which would explain her shock at coming home to find her underground station turned into a top forty format which she absolutely despised.
That was my introduction to Ms. Belden and now it is yours as well. After my disastrous freshman year of literature composition with a teacher that did not know how to inspire his students to read and write well, this first semester with Ms. Belden was like a breath of fresh air. She introduced me to fiction writers that I had not heard of but learned to appreciate their work almost as much as I did Steinbeck. We read Sinclair Lewis and his stories from the fictional city of Zenith. I became familiar with Elmer Gantry, Dr. Arrowsmith and my favorite of his characters, George F. Babbit. His books were protest literature as much as Steinbeck's Joad family, Lenny and George, and Doc. Ms. Belden taught me how to read fiction that had meaning and I began to search out and read a little more fiction then I had before. The fiction I searched for had to have a purpose, not just a story that came out of somebody's mind but a story meant to make a difference. A story written to open the eyes of the general public into the flaws of human nature and class societies. We read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" which exposed the meat packing industry in the United States and opened it up to federal investigations and regulations. We read Tolstoy and other Russian novelists who wrote books against the Russian regimes that controlled the people of the Soviet Union. These authors were putting their very lives at stake by writing their novels for the world to see. Ms. Belden repaired the damage done the year before to my excitement that I had for reading books.
She also had us do some compositions dealing with subjects in American society that we found to be lacking in control and fairness. We wrote our own protest papers and figured out what we thought would be an utopian society and put it down on paper. I began to write again without the fear of being shredded in front of the whole class. She respected ideas from her students and encouraged us to express those ideas through writing, reading and talking about what we had learned. I was back on the literature/composition train that I use to love so much but had been destroyed the previous year.
I ended up taking every class that Ms. Belden taught. I realized that I could communicate with her on a teacher/student level I had not felt before. In my mind she was what every teacher should strive for. Build your students up, give them confidence in what they do and treat them with respect when they make a mistake or misunderstand a point. I was taking one of her classes during the Senate Watergate Hearings and she had a television in the room so we could watch it. It was important to her to watch, listen and then discuss. She knew there would be a plethora of books published after the whole mess had faded off into history and she wanted to teach us how to read these books with critical thinking.
She spent her time actively preparing her students for college and she did a fine job of it. When I took literature and composition classes in college, I always looked back to what Ms. Belden had taught me on how to read, how to be critical, and then how to express what I had learned from the research.
In all my years of schooling, from Kindergarten right through college I had some pretty good teachers. A couple of those teachers I would even classify as great teachers, but I would always look back on those two and a half years with Ms. Belden and know without a doubt that she was by far the best teacher I had ever had. To this day I still feel that way about her as a teacher. We need more Ms. Beldens in today's schools. They are out there but they are few and far between.