Guest Writers

Hard Ass by Jessica Buttram #twits

Jessica Buttram

Jessica Buttram has the best last name in the whole world. It totally catches the eye, does it not? And if her name catches your attention, jut wait. Her words draw you into her web ever further. And then you are trapped. (No, not in her butt. In her web. Can’t you guys follow a metaphor. Geez.)

Jessica is the fun-loving wife and mother to Bug and Bean as well as a kind, supportive cyber-friend who can pack a lot of snark into a few words and get away with it. Why? Because she is that cute.

Back in May, I asked a bunch of writers to help me as I prepare for the fall semester when I will not only be teaching, but I will also be running around making many poor and expensive decisions planning my son’s bar-mitzvah. I asked if they would write a memory about a most favorite teacher or uber-unfavorite teacher and the lesson they learned from this wonderful person/douche-bag.

Jess jumped on it right away and delivered me her piece way before the deadline. And as a reward, I declared she could be line leader.

So without further delay, here is Jessica’s piece. When you are done reading and commenting here, you can find her at Meet the Buttrams or Twitter stalk her at @JButtWhatWhat.

• • •

Hard Ass

He came to teach at my high school my junior year.

The summer before school started, we received a letter in the mail from him with a list of reading material, as well as our first writing assignment, to be turned in on the first day.


I had attended an academically advanced school since sixth grade, and, though we had summer reading lists, not once did I have to write a paper when I should have been working on my tan lines.

Dr. Browning, one of the few high school teachers in our entire city to hold a doctorate, had us shaking in our boots, and we didn’t even know what he looked like.

I turned in that first writing assignment, handwritten on loose leaf, titled “Randy Bragg vs. Me,” the assignment being a comparative analysis of any literary character and how he related to oneself. It should have been easy, right? I mean, half of the subject I had known my entire life. I picked Randy Bragg, of Alas, Babylon, because we had read it the previous year, because it was still relatively fresh in my mind, because I had only skimmed the other reading material assigned, because I had spent much of my summer at the beach, because I had a killer tan.

My paper came back more red than not, starting with its pitiful title. What was that number written on the top? Was that my grade? I didn’t recognize it. It was foreign to me. My heart sunk. I had been told all my life that I was smart. That I could write. That I was clever and witty and who was this man to tell me otherwise?

Oh, no one of consequence.

Just the best English teacher I would ever have in life ever always period exclamation point dot com.

I ended up having Dr. Browning for two years, as he moved up to Senior English with us. I had him for Advanced Placement English both years, plus a class he invented called Literature and the Community, a proactive class intending to turn us students into contributive members of our city through studying relevant literature and twice a week volunteering somewhere in town. I personally think DB just wanted that last period of the day free so he could go home early. (JK, DB! LOL! ROFL! BYOB! NASA!)

DB was a hard ass. That first year in AP English, several students dropped out. I couldn’t make a decent grade on a paper to save my life. I had no idea what he wanted from his students. When I thought I wrote something eloquent, he lambasted my style. When I thought I wrote something informative, he scoffed at my research. I was quickly learning that English, a subject I had always breezed through before, was not easy. (Whaaaaat???)

Eventually, it got to me. My grades told me I was average in an above-average course. I was in AP Calculus and AP Art, I was a starter on the soccer team, everyone else, everywhere else was telling me I was great. So I sucked it up, approached him after class one day, and asked him if it was too late to drop out of AP English. It was hard to admit that maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, but there was a tiny bit of relief waiting in the wings, knowing I would have at least a slightly lighter work load.

He told me there was no way he was letting me drop AP English.

I was shocked. I argued. Had he read my papers? He remained firm. I stomped my feet and went to my next class.

On the very next paper we turned in, I received a perfect grade. My jaw dropped. The heavens opened, angels rejoiced. I’m pretty sure I saw my dead grandfather hovering in the clouds above, starting a slow-clap in my honor. I had just found the Holy Grail.

After class, Dr. Browning told me that was the best paper I had ever written. Somehow, I knew he was exaggerating. Somehow, I knew he spared that red pen because one more less-than-stellar grade might have been the straw that broke this camel’s back. But seeing that A+ in his indisputable handwriting was enough.

I ended that year with a “B.” But I had survived my first year with the intimidating Dr. Browning.

My senior year with Dr. Browning went by more smoothly. We knew what he expected. We knew what an “A” paper should look like. We knew when his birthday was. We knew what brand of cigarettes he smoked. We knew the grade written on the top of our papers directly correlated to how strongly it smelled of nicotine and coffee (the stronger the smell, the lower the grade, as if he needed his vices just to get through our writing). We had inside jokes, we found his good graces, and we knew what it felt like to be deemed intelligent by a truly brilliant teacher.

Dr. Browning was the first teacher who told me I could write. Really, really write. And I’ll never forget the moment I doubted that, the moment Dr. Browning exalted my mediocre writing just to restore my confidence, the moment I began to believe him when he said I just had to find my voice.

I think I found it, DB.

Who was your Dr. Browning? The person who challenged you to go above and beyond?

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction. Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

39 thoughts on “Hard Ass by Jessica Buttram #twits

    1. Jess! Thank you for being the best line leader ever! I wrote a story to “kick things off” this morning, but I see it never posted. Whooops.

      AT&T does not work well in NYC.

      My kick-me-in-the-pants teacher was Professor Huff, a History professor who refused to accept papers over 2 pages long. I didn’t believe him, so I handed in a 4 page paper.

      And then I watched him tear off my final 2 pages and throw them in the garbage. He told me to follow the instructions the next time and to be a better editor. He was the first person who taught he to “cut the fat” and to see that it was possible to write something powerful in 750 words.

      Ole Huff’s lessons on conciseness helped prepare me for blog writing back in 1986. I wish he was still around so I could thank him.

  1. You were so lucky to have had Dr. B. in your educational journey I had many wonderful teachers, but… It wasn’t a teacher who challenged me to go above and beyond… I thank my high achieving parents and two older, brilliant sisters for making me who I am today.

    1. Oh, yes, my high-expectations parents and older sister who played School with me are definitely to thank (blame?) for my thorough nerdiness too. But there’s something about the influence of someone with the power to actually fail you.

  2. Excellent post! I’ve got a teacher who pushed me above and beyond, but I’m hoping to get the chance to write about him at some point. Or maybe I’ll get the chance to write about my English teacher who let me cheat on the final my freshman year….

  3. Thank you for writing this Jessica. I really enjoyed it. (Don’t tell Renee, because I’ve never given her one, but you get an A+ on this one.)

    I found myself drifting along through school when I was dropped into the dreaded World History class taught by Mr. “Hardass” Hall. He actually expected students to study and learn! On day one he gave us the ground rules; read the assignment, take notes and be ready for a quiz at the end of class every single day. He left a loophole though, you can use any form of notes for the quiz but not the book.

    Mr. Hall had said we could even copy the text from the book word for word if we wanted. Luckily for me, I was taking a typing class at the same time and had access to an old mechanical typewriter at home. (I’m dating myself here.) Every night I pounded out the assigned reading on that old beast. By time I was done, I didn’t need the notes for the test because I had really, truly studied every word and wow, could I type when it was all over.

    “Hardass” Hall paved the way to ace two classes in one. Thank you Mr. Hall.

  4. I like the whole post but this line is brilliant:

    “We knew the grade written on the top of our papers directly correlated to how strongly it smelled of nicotine and coffee (the stronger the smell, the lower the grade, as if he needed his vices just to get through our writing).”

    Great stuff Jester.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this roller coaster account of an influential teacher! I am glad you shared this.
    I love, “I had attended an academically advanced school since sixth grade, and, though we had summer reading lists, not once did I have to write a paper when I should have been working on my tan lines.”
    So funny and yet I can see that it shocked you! Hahaha!

    1. Thank you! Yes, it was most definitely a shock. I’m almost positive I wrote it in less than thirty minutes the night before school started. After I had spent several hours organizing my school supplies and decorating my notebooks, of course.

  6. Nicely said. This is the kind of thing you hope to have written about you, as an educator. It’s funny, because as teachers we forget the impact we can have on students, but I also think students never realize the impact they can have on former teachers with letters like this.

    1. I have always, always admired those who teach. There are three teachers in my past who have impacted me so positively, but in my year alone, there were at least a dozen who feel the same way about DB that I did. You teachers have a such a broad reach.

  7. This is wonderful. I am loving this series!

    I actually got pushed this past year by my TA in the senior writing class we all had to take. I had volunteered by first essay to be peer-reviewed by the class and it had gone through the normal peer-grading. Each time it received awesome feedback and A’s from all my classmates. I even went to the TA herself to get feedback before the final draft was due. I thought I had created something original and clever. Then I got back my grade: B+. For a nerd like me, this was like being punched in the stomach. I obviously thought this was an injustice and may or may not have cried in her office. Pathetic, I know. But she told me how great of a writer she thought I was, but that I still had room to improve. I ended up with an A in the class, and she recently emailed me to ask if she could use my final essay as an example of good writing next year. I needed that kick in the butt.

    1. It’s always hard to hear you’re not as great as you think you are. But because of that, I don’t accept mediocrity from myself. I can tell we’re soul sisters. Math? Jesus? Nerdy crying? Check.

  8. Dr. B would totally give you an A on this post. Thanks for writing this. My Dr. B was Mrs. Libby, who taught my regular English class junior year. She was also my homeroom teacher and when I attempted to sign up for the burnout class for senior English (the one where you got to watch The Wall) she flat-out refused to sign my schedule. She made me take her AP English class senior year, where I made lots of C’s as my family fell apart for the second time. She taught us out of the hefty Norton Anthology of World Literature and made us buy the book so we could mark it up. She was a Jewish woman who taught the Bible as literature in a public school. She called us on every single time we half-assed something. I don’t even remember what my final grade was, but I remember everything she taught me.

  9. Later in life, it was always the “hard ass” or the tough teacher that actually taught me and made me learn. Often it was the hard classes I did the best in – the easy ones I slacked off and often didn’t do my homework.

    This is a great story.

    I know exactly what you mean about the scent of nicotine.

    1. Oh, definitely! The non-AP courses I took were easy enough for me to still make A’s in, but it was English and Math that took up all my evenings. I was a lazy student, except when it came to those two classes.

      The smell of nicotine and coffee still makes me nervous.

  10. Oh, how I know that look! The look on the student’s face when they get their first paper back from me and it’s not an A. For me, the real test of a student is what they do with that first unexpected grade. I love that you stuck with it and rose to the challenge of the hard-ass teacher! 🙂

    I don’t smoke and I’m careful not to spill my bourbon on papers I’m grading, but I’ll tell you that you guys were probably right about vices and grading 😉

    I can recall several tough teachers I’ve had over the years. My 11th grade AP American History was one. I learned so much in that class, and he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I was never the sort of students to say so, but I actually told him that once when I saw him a few years after I graduated from high school. I had two other professors that stand out in my mind, both of whom influenced the direction of my life and the quality of my work. All three stand out in my mind because they are some of the few who would actually call me on my bullshit and make me prove, not only to them but to myself, that I could do better.

    1. I was a total teacher’s pet. They all knew how much I loved them, every single one, even the ones who were probably better off just being the football coach.

      I love that you drink bourbon while grading papers. It’s all so Hemingway-esque. 🙂

  11. Great essay, and awesome teacher memories! We owe them so much…I think the person who challenged me the most was my third grade teacher, Mrs. Moore. Others did after her, of course. But she was the first. She would give me really fun extra credit puzzles to do in the classroom when I finished an assignment. She made me cry (probably many times) with her infamous (and feared) THIRD GRADE ANIMAL REPORT, which when I was finally finished with it, after note cards and the rough drafts and including the pictures and handwritten (remember when kids could handwrite?) in my big elementary school writing, was a whooping 53 pages long. My mom saved it; it’s still in my dad’s house somewhere, waiting for me to take it out and taunt my sons with it when it’s their turn for their first big paper.

    1. Oh, my, 53 pages?! My senior thesis for college barely tops that!

      And thanks for pointing out the lower grade teachers. I don’t think of them much but without that early love for learning they encouraged, I don’t think I would have gotten that rich of an experience later.

  12. I am late to this post, and now all I want to do is email Mr. Litten to tell him how fabulous he was…

    He was my Dr. B.

    I did not push myself in high school. Nobody pushed me. My parents (who are fantastic, don’t get me wrong) were teachers at my school. They felt that I needed to be left alone to find my own way.

    I did not welcome their assistance or pressure or presence.
    So I was “an underachiever.”

    I dropped all my honors classes. I didn’t fail school, I just didn’t try to reach my “potential.”

    I sailed along with everything EASY for me. I got good grades in EASY classes. I did not try to do any better.

    One day, my English teacher said, “If you can write this well now at fifteen, there’s no telling what you could do…”

    And he dragged me into his honors and then AP English classes over the next two years.

    This didn’t make me try harder in the rest of my classes (sadly) but he inspired me think that if I DID try, I could maybe possibly perhaps a little bit be a writer someday.

    He also inspired me to become a teacher myself. To try to make a difference for all kids, to hopefully stoke their desire to reach their potential.

    Loved this post, Jess. And Renee, I love the idea behind the series.
    You are both so wonderful.

    And I hope your teachers see your words…

    1. Julie, per usual, you and I are bonded.

      I was a classic under-achiever.

      Did you not notice my weekly detention?

      Yeah, that was just in English class.

      No one pushed me until much later.

      As in college-later.

      Thank goodness I got in somewhere, so I had the opportunity to hear I actually had potential.

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