“Inspiration’s what you are to me.”
— Led Zeppelin
I came across a name the other day I hadn’t seen in decades. Dolores Foley (Harper). That struck me as ironic since I’d only recently listened to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” album (vinyl, baby!) all the way through.
Foley — as she was known back in 1972 when she started her teaching career at Irwin County High School and as she’ll forever be — was a Chicago girl who somehow got a job teaching English to the heathen sophomores at ICHS. She was the one who made me understand Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” but more importantly, she was the individual who taught me more than anyone I’ve ever encountered in my life outside my father.
Foley had a high-pitched voice that would grow higher when she got exasperated. Which was often. I’ll never forget her most mimicked line: “You people are the rudest people ...” (You have to get all whiney and emphasize the “you” and the “rud-” syllable of rudest to get it right.)
But Foley, who was only a few years older than we were when she started her teaching career, got through to those of us who had even the slightest interest in learning because she communicated with us on our level, and she didn’t dumb things down like so many teachers did, thinking they were doing us a favor by removing most of the challenge that is a vital part of education. It’s the discovery — the a-ha moments — that brings out the best in students.
About that “Hot for Teacher” thing: Foley became my first schoolboy crush because she was so darned enthusiastic and optimistic, even when facing a classroom full of dunderheads whose priority concerns at the time were: a) getting stoned, b) getting to the lunchroom, c) getting together with their girl- or boyfriend and d) getting out of doing schoolwork. I became a regular at Foley’s home — her roommate and fellow ICHS teacher Wendy Waite was a beauty in whose presence I became all tongue-tied, but being around Foley was like having a fun older sister who actually didn’t mind her dorky younger brother being around.
She, and some of her college friends who’d stop in to visit from time to time, taught me how to play Categories — you set up a grid, see and then ... never mind, it’d take too long, and no one cares about words anymore anyway. I do remember making one of her friends (these were college graduates, see) mad when, while playing Categories, he listed “Annabella” as a Beatles song that started with an “A” and I called him on it. The look he gave me said it all: “You’re 15, dork, shut up.” Still, I knew my Beatles songs.
I’ve always told people — and it’s about 93 percent true — that the only reason I didn’t drop out of high school (I was one of those who hated school early-on) was the fact that I was playing football and baseball. I’ll never forget telling my dad that I wanted to drop out when I turned 16 — I was 14 at the time — and he said, “You know you’ll have to get a job.” I assured him I was ready to do just that. Then he dropped the bomb on me: “If you quit school, you can’t play football or baseball anymore.”
That, boys and girls, is the primary reason I didn’t quit school and become another statistic.
The other 7 percent or so that kept me in school was Foley. I got over the crush thing when I got a my-age girlfriend — and, trust me, that’s a story no one wants to hear — but what I didn’t realize was that while she was taking me under her wing, Foley was slowly eliminating this hatred I’d built up for school. By the time I was halfway through my sophomore year, I’d become so ingrained in school activities — again, because of Foley — that it dawned on me that high school wasn’t so bad after all. And neither was learning.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’? Foley used that as a teaching tool during one memorable class unit, and I don’t think even she realized how much she’d hit me in my sweet spot: music. I don’t hear anything from that album without thinking of Foley. Which leads me around to one of the things I’ve forsaken in my life.
I never told Foley how much she inspired me and how big an impact she had on my life. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be doing what I am today were it not for her influence. And while I have no indication that she even knows that I’m still alive and consider myself always one of her students, if anyone who knows her sees her, please tell her I said thank you.