Thank You, Miss Hoffmann
When I tell people that I was born and raised in
California, I sometimes can see them mentally conjuring up
images of Baywatch or Beverly Hills, 90210. Actually, the
movie American Graffiti is much more in sync with my
childhood surrounds. Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley
— the hot, dry farm belt of California — I
could relate more easily to Steinbeck's Grapes of
Wrath than to the lush vineyards of Napa Valley or the
orange groves of Pasadena.
Steinbeck notwithstanding, English and writing were
never favorite subjects of mine in school. Not that I
wanted it to be that way; it's just that the quality of my
English teachers was generally mediocre. On the other hand,
I had some fabulous science and math teachers, starting in
the seventh grade, who provided the best possible grounding
for my college studies and beyond. I rarely read books
outside of class, and, if I did, they were more likely to
be concerned with science or math than history or fiction,
a reflection of my classroom experiences.
It's hard to imagine English teachers not being able
to compete with their science and math peers. Perhaps it
wasn't that the English teachers were so bad but that the
math teachers were so good. Whatever the cause, the
discrepancy fueled my frustration. I remember one time
meeting with the high school principal to see if I could
transfer to another English teacher because I felt I wasn't
learning anything new.
All that changed my senior year in high school —
and how! On the first day of class, as I perused my
schedule, I started to get a pain in my stomach when I came
across the third-period entry, "11 a.m.: Senior English,
Agnes Hoffman, Room 214C." Although we had never met, just
seeing Agnes Hoffman's name on my class schedule was
sufficient to increase my gastric secretions 10-fold
— such was her legendary reputation. Miss Hoffman
(as we then called unmarried women teachers in the days
before Gloria Steinem and women's lib) was the kind of
teacher who gave students ulcers, though, as far as I know,
she never suffered this malady herself.
Standing all of five-foot-three, slightly portly,
mid-40s, with a ruddy complexion, penetrating eyes and an
irascible personality, Miss Hoffman was a formidable
figure. We nonetheless started out the school year with a
reasonably good relationship — until the first
midterm. The class was assigned to read a story in the
Atlantic Monthly by John Cheever. As I recall, on
first (and second and third) glance, the story was nearly
incomprehensible. But not to worry: From past experience, I
knew that reading comprehension questions on an English
midterm were akin to Sports Marketing final exam questions
at the University of Georgia: "How many halves in a college
basketball game?" Or the old Groucho Marx query, "Who is
buried in Grant's Tomb?"
Unfortunately, after the first question on the
midterm, the truth hit home. I was in serious trouble and
couldn't fake my way to success. Not only did I not
understand the article, I didn't even understand the
questions. Still, I thought that my good academic
reputation and what I hoped was a charming personality
would at least get me a C.
Lesson learned. You can only fake your way so far. The
next day, a large red F was inscribed across the top of my
exam, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Even worse, scribbled
at the bottom was a note from Miss Hoffman: "Please see me
after class!" She found me out. I was an empty suit, a
math savant devoid of any literary ability.
I can't say the tongue-lashing I received from Miss
Hoffman after class was undeserved, but that didn't make it
any easier to take. The message was clear: "Brody, you're
going to have to hustle just to pass this class, and even
that is a stretch." However, she wasn't as heartless as I
feared. She gave me a reprieve. She would assign another
article and make up another midterm so that I could save
myself from total disaster.
As you would expect, the next article was even more
obscure and complex, but I spent all the waking hours of
the weekend studying and straining my cerebrum to wade
through it. And then, voila!, suddenly, at 11 p.m. on
Sunday, it came together. Monday morning I took the makeup
exam and passed with flying colors.
And so it was. I never worked harder in any class,
before or after. In addition to reading assignments, every
week she would assign a writing task, sometimes requiring
only one paragraph. I sweated and convulsed, edited and
rewrote each assignment endlessly (and recall that this was
before the age of word processors and PCs). Sometimes when
I got my homework back, there were more red marks and
comments from Miss Hoffman than there were words in the
paragraph. I sweated greatly, but I learned. It was
painful, yes, but even more, it was exhilarating. And I
aced the final; somehow she forgave my initial failure and
gave me an A- for the term.
From Miss Hoffman, I learned to read and I learned to
write. More than that, I learned to love to read and write,
both for my personal enjoyment and later, of course, for
the immense help it gave me in my subsequent training and
I have but one lingering regret. After high school
graduation, I never saw her again and never had the
opportunity to give her my heartfelt thanks for all that
she did for me. She recognized that I had the potential to
learn far more but would only do so if she set the standard
at a very high level and insisted that nothing less would
be acceptable. Then she gave me a second chance to prove,
or improve, myself. She was tough, but I knew that she was
only being tough because she cared about me.
I have been told sometimes by high school students
visiting Johns Hopkins that it is a great school, but they
don't want to come here because it is "too hard." Learning
is neither easy nor predictable. However, the best teachers
know that the higher expectations are set, the more
students learn. The best teachers offer "tough love," like
Miss Hoffman, to take their students to the highest levels.
Learning is hard work.
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.