Don’t ask us any questions

A half dozen of us sat nervously in the advanced English classroom of Mrs. Ruth Shafer, a veteran teacher who, many had heard, ran her students through the paces.

Mrs. Shafer, wherever she is would probably fault me for using such a cliché (“through the paces”), but even as I write this, I think back more than five decades to the favorable impressions she left on us.

Let me explain:

I believe I saw Mrs. Shafer for the first time the quarter I graduated from Highlands. She was never my teacher, as I attended Immaculate Conception School, where my English task master was Sister Mary Correcta Grammatica. In order to complete a major in English education at Highlands, in the ‘60s, we needed to report on a half dozen class observations of teachers in our discipline.

We students, among others, were Travis Reames, Hugh Prather, Kathy Forrer, Perry Gallegos, me; we observed classes taught by Mrs. Schafer. As I recall, the rules for classroom observations, were that we were not to participate, only observe, and not raise our hands or ask questions.

That was my understanding of classroom conduct. But what if the classroom teacher asks us a question, either to help the Robertson seniors along, or to test us?

The “test us” part was what we found frightening.

We had nothing to gain from an exchange with the teacher and plenty to lose. Could we compete against a class of students two or three years younger than us (or, as Mrs. Shafer might have said, “younger than we”)?

We all realized that the material the kids at RHS had covered was still fresh, whereas our reading of a hefty Dickens novel may have happened during the Punic Wars.

Somehow we’d all heard of the teacher’s reputation for being tough. But we were tough too. After four years of study with Dr. Oliver Mallory, Dr. John Adams, Dr. Anne Lohrli, Dr. Guy Burris, Dr. Robert Bunker and others, we felt confident. Nevertheless, the Robertson High teacher began her presentation playing hardball. She asked a tough question of the class.


Then she uttered something none of us had expected. She said it was probable that some of us haughty and snotty college types also might not know the answers she sought. And she punctuated that with the message that her high school seniors need not feel intimidated by us university visitors, as “There’s a chance they (meaning we/us) don’t know the answers either.

And would anything or anybody prevent and high schooler from asking one of us a question that had stumped the class — to play a form of “gotcha!”?

Have you ever prayed that the fire alarm would go off at that instant?

Or that Mrs. Shafer would throw a softball question? Or that through divine intervention we’d actually know the answer? All of those things entered my mind. I thought, “Please don’t ask a question about the mid-Victorians, but if you do, call on someone else.”

Even though we older, presumably more sophisticated and better-read types have a deeper foundation in English and American literature, we had nothing to gain.

Remember, before even entering Mrs. Shafer’s classroom, we’re supposed to know all there is to know about English, all the way back to Beowulf, on through the Romantic poets, the Victorians, the pre-Raphaelites — in fact, back to Jack Kerouac, in his work about the Beat Generation — even to Bill Bryson’s half-dozen books on The Mother Tongue, and other best-selling works.

But Mrs. Shafer would have been out of line asking questions on works not yet published. In fact, people like Bill Bryson and Edward Albee hadn’t even been born at the time.

But that didn’t matter!

All I could think of was the time when as an undergraduate, the sudden death of a professor, a Mr. Jameson, caused the much-admired Dr. Anne Lohrli to fill in until a replacement could be found.

Known for her extremely high standards, she readily filled in. Clocks in Burris Hall rang at exactly 10 minutes before the hour, and as I checked my watch, I figured there was little to no chance the professor would call on me.

I was wrong! Within the 75 seconds before my imagined relief, Dr. Lohrli called on me twice I fumbled the first question, mixing up the names of Shelley and Keats, calling them Kelly and Sheets. I stumbled through the second question but actually earned a “That’s correct, Mr. Trujillo” from Dr. Lorhli.

Mercifully, back in the Robertson classroom, Mrs. Schaffer never asked any questions of us college students. Was that her strategy: Make us think questions were on the way so we could sweat through the entire session?

Or maybe she had the feeling that all of us were so bright anyway that we’d field all the questions like a third baseman scooping up a double-play baseball (another cliché).

We left the RHS class with great admiration for the tough standards Mrs. Shafer employed and the assurance that students who studied under her would do well in college.

And as for Dr. Lohrli at Highlands, I ran into her at Murphey’s Drug Store after my graduation, introduced myself and reminded her that I’d been in the class she took over for Mr. Jameson.

She seemed to have remembered the incident, and as we said good-bye, she asked me, “By the way, Mr. Trujillo, do you know that Shelley and Keats are two separate individuals?”

She’d baited me, and I was flattered that she remembered my faux pas, and she even overlooked my malapropism.

• • •

I learned just before press time Tuesday that one of Highlands’ most respected, admired and dedicated professors, Robert “Bob” Amai, passed away Monday night in Albuquerque. I will address his many contributions in an upcoming column.

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