I can remember all the teachers I have had. I have their names written down, from kindergarten to college, in case I forget. However, the list itself continues to remind me of my experiences with each one, forever reinforcing my memory.
I learned to write things from my favorite teacher of all, Dr. Harm de Blij, a world-renowned geographer who managed to make physical geography the most interesting and entertaining class of my education.
While attending the University of Miami in 1978, I enrolled in De Blij’s class, which was held in a stadium-style classroom with capacity for more than 100 students. Designed as a half-cereal bowl, this mini auditorium featured the podium below and rows rising 20 long stairs.
On the first day of class, I chose the last row for my seat, knowing full well that this location from the first day would end up being my permanent position for the duration of the course. My last row pick was part paranoia and part cunning:
1) I have learned from Wild Bill Hickok’s experience never to sit with my back to the door or to anyone else; and 2) I could watch everyone (read: girl) in front of me in this lofty classroom theater.
From what appeared to be 50 yards away and 50 feet below me, de Blij led his class, often waving his arms and gesturing throughout each sentence, orchestrating his words to his audience. Totally intrigued by his enthusiasm and passion, the classroom remained focused on his only performer.
The fiery professor paced his acting area like a seasoned actor playing Hamlet for the crowd. While lecturing, he looked at his captives as if to draw every last drop of their attention. His stage presence was like Olivier’s. His charisma was Churchillian. His wit was Kennedy style.
In a particularly psychic segment of a lecture, I remember De Blij displaying his fervor with sheer extemporaneous exuberance.
While explaining the forces of plate tectonics, de Blij quickly drew a landscape on a blackboard that stretched as wide as a billboard on a highway. However, for the exuberant geographer, it was not enough space. Undeterred by the end of the blackboard, he continued to the brick and crossed the classroom, diagramming with chalk the true dynamics of earthquake science.
That was the crucial moment when I decided that efforts like this were not going to go unrewarded. He captured my interest and never allowed it to get away. His anecdotes expanded the subject of geography to history and sociology and political science and sports. He challenged us to understand the relevance of geography and to use that knowledge to better understand what is happening in the world.
The teacher would soon put his audience to the test with a four-page mimeographed exam (which I still have after just 35 years!) Packed with multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions. For me, the test was very easy as De Blij had me completely enthralled with his favorite subject.
A week later, while on his podium, de Blij recited each student’s name from a handful of tests in his hand, beckoning each student to receive their graded exam first-hand. The students gathered around him waving their hands like commodity traders to receive their first assessment.
Amid the hubbub, de Blij handed me my test while exclaiming with an accepting nod, “Students in the back row don’t usually get A’s!”
The sight of a bold “94” grade under my name on the test made me climb back to my seat in awe. Had this geography superstar really noticed me sitting there in her class? Has it only been three weeks? How is it possible that he recognized me in that casting scrum as one of his backbenchers?
Now I felt compelled. Challenged. This crafty teacher … this psychological genius just guaranteed my “A” in his class. Not for anything I was going to give away, but for throwing a subliminal glove right at my feet. How could I not give you your “A” after calling me an exception to the rule?
I knew I couldn’t allow him to attack me three months later with an answer like, “Well, like I said, the students in the back row do NOT get A!”
The geography teacher had me totally immersed in his lectures. De Blij delineated his brilliance on multiple levels.
It was so entertaining that he would come home from college and regurgitate his entire class at my mother, with all his gestures and histrionics. And she was just as enthralled as I was, despite the secondhand performance.
Eighteen years later, it was not surprising to see Blij selected as the geography editor for “Good Morning America.” He then explained the topography our soldiers faced during the “Desert Storm” to a geographically challenged national audience and it was truly spectacular.
His passion, energy and drive, I am sure, made General Norman Swarzkopf proud.
De Blij, now a highly decorated professor, continues to teach geography to students at Michigan State University. Lucky Spartans.
Now, three and a half decades since my best course, I salute the teacher who deeply affected my intellect and my appreciation for great pedagogical ability.