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One teacher, no escape

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KARIN KLEIN is an editorial writer for The Times.

THOUGHTS OF HELL and Miss Augusta Williams and humanities class hadn’t crossed my mind in years. Those were good years.

But then I heard that L.A. school officials are thinking about assigning students to the same teachers throughout high school. Suddenly, Miss Williams broke free from the far recesses of my mind, where I’d had her in lockdown.

The L.A. notion -- which should remain a notion and nothing more -- is about creating a warmer, fuzzier, more personal experience for teenagers who otherwise might be at higher risk of dropping out. Nice idea, except for the kids who are stuck with a schedule full of Miss Williamses and her ilk. We’ve all had teachers who could outdo Ambien at inducing sleep, and with fewer side effects. Teachers about whom the best you can say is, “I just have to get through a year of this.” Unless, of course, you have to get through four years of this.

Miss Williams was one of those, even worse than the witless art teacher I bamboozled into giving me an A for the sheet of paper I had crayoned completely black. Ironically, many students were eager to take the new course in “humanities” that Miss Williams was introducing to our school. It was the institution’s attempt to “get with it,” as education began to move from traditional history classes to more exciting social studies courses in, say, “The Role of Dogs in 19th Century Class Struggle.”

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A prim woman with cropped gray hair -- the spare, spinsterly sort of teacher who doesn’t seem to exist anymore -- Miss Williams wasn’t an obvious choice to initiate this bold, modern educational adventure. There wasn’t, in fact, a bold or modern thing about her -- or, as it turned out, anything engaging or even organized.

As its mushy title implies, the class was what my Yiddish-speaking grandmother would call a balagan -- utter chaos. A few French phrases here, a little bit of scratchy Beethoven played on a portable phonograph (am I dating myself?), a field trip to an art museum ... and extended yet strangely apt readings of Dante’s “Inferno.”

We were confused about what we were learning, or even doing. The class was its own microcosmic argument against decentralizing curriculum. Miss Williams’ meandering lectures about -- well, we never figured out exactly what they were about -- were 50 minutes of daily clockwatching torture.

One day, a group of students (I’m sure I wasn’t among them) expressed their displeasure by taping an ornately lettered poster in the hallway above her classroom door, proclaiming, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” We were certain that all, uh, hell would break loose. But Miss Williams was pleased, seeing this as a literal sign that we were budding Dante scholars.

Maybe she was right. Because as I think of the L.A. high school kids who might be assigned a whole slate full of bad teachers in their freshman year and be stuck with them for what seems forever -- the remainder of public school life -- my mind immediately conjures the nine circles of hell, reimagined as the seven periods of hell.

There’s nothing divine about this comedy. Four years with a math teacher like Mrs. Martin, who was so bad at explaining trigonometry that students were reduced to tears of frustration? Four years with a science teacher like Miss Meadows, whose idea of teaching geology was writing out the syllabus, word for word, on the board every day?

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If this L.A. school idea goes through, educators will have managed to outdo Dante at inventing eternal torture.

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