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Don't call her 'sweet'

I don't know who first uttered the slur that those who can't, teach, but it wasn't a former student of Kay McSpadden's.

McSpadden, who has spent most of her three-decade career cajoling, humoring and enlightening adolescents at York Comprehensive High School, is herself a skillful writer.

Her bi-weekly column has appeared on the op-ed page of The Charlotte Observer since 1999. Jane McAlister Pope, deputy editor of that newspaper's editorial page, had the good sense to keep McSpadden on after the latter woman's term as community columnist expired. Had I been able to steal her away from my erstwhile competitor, I would have done so in a heartbeat.

McSpadden is a community treasure. I say that, not solely, or even primarily, because of her recently published book, "Notes From The Classroom: Reflections On Teaching," but because of the impact she has had on the lives of so many students.

Nevertheless, her book, composed mainly of her Observer columns, is a gem. Not only does it give the reader insight into the mind and soul of a career teacher, but it also gives ample evidence that McSpadden can hold her own with anyone in this ink-stained trade.

Here are two examples of her wordsmanship. In setting up a column titled "Epiphanies," she describes one of her son's disappointment in being relegated to the role of Christmas pageant shepherd for the fourth straight year: "Shepherds ... are the lowest in the pageant hierarchy. They wear bathrobes, carry sticks, and retire early to a corner of the stage with their cardboard sheep." In another, "Deserts," a somber reflection on mortality, the author compares an Arizona summer to South Carolina's humidity, which she describes as "slick and hot as dog slobber."

About the only thing I don't like about this book is the title, which fails to do justice. Rather than producing a stuffy treatise on the teacher's art, McSpadden shows us what it means each day to enter a classroom filled with the most challenging, feared and exasperating creature on earth -- the American teenager.

Had anyone asked, I would have entitled it, "Don't Call Me Sweet!" In one column, McSpadden explains how she was taken aback when the husband of a former student said his wife had described McSpadden as one of her "sweet teachers." It wasn't a word she would have chosen to describe herself. Caring? Perhaps. Demanding? Certainly.

America likes to think of teachers as demure, docile females who might have stepped from a Norman Rockwell illustration. Teaching, as McFadden explains, is hard work. No matter how many times they have taught the material, teachers have to gird themselves mentally and emotionally for every encounter with the baggage today's teenagers lug into the classroom -- from raging hormones to domestic abuse, from concerns that an exam will conflict with the first day of hunting season, to knowing that classmates may be serving in Iraq or Afghanistan soon after they cross the stage for a diploma.

McFadden touches but doesn't dwell upon such familiar teacher complaints as long hours, clueless parents and endless tests that measure everything but essential qualities we hope formal education will instill in our children.

Where these columns shine is in describing, from the teacher's point of view, the vital importance of classroom chemistry. In one column, "The Amen Corner," McFadden writes about the "defining moment" when the teacher recognizes that her students have bought into the idea they are capable of learning and that -- just maybe -- this adult standing before them may be able to teach them something.

In another, she refers to a moment, during the third meeting of a particular class, as the day she starts to love them.

In a society that, at best, tolerates adolescence, Kay McSpadden is unabashed in her respect for what teenagers endure and in awe of what they accomplish. She is both a strong advocate of her students and their stern taskmaster. She neither pulls punches nor makes excuses.

Plus, she's a darned good writer.

"Notes From A Classroom" is published by C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Charlotte. Contact your local book store or www.notesfromaclassroom.com.