Two thoughts come to mind as the kids head back to school: thank God I don’t have to go to school anymore, and I wish I’d thanked Miss Peseux. Miss Marion L. Peseux (rhymes with kazoo) was my sixth-grade teacher in 1961 and she was the best teacher I ever had.
She was, as the song says, built like “a little teapot, short and stout.” I don’t think she was any taller than 5-foot-1, but she radiated energy like a secret force field. She wore old fashioned shirtwaist dresses that belted around her not inconsiderable middle. There was always a crumpled Kleenex tucked carefully into the right hand side of her belt. Her hair was short, white and curled up at the ends. At the time my classmates and I thought she was ancient — she was 42.
Teachers are as professionally dedicated as any employees you’re ever going to find, but at the end of the day, it’s a job. For Miss Peseux, it was a calling. I don’t know if she would have done it for free, but I think she probably would have tried. Parents knew that if it was possible to build you a better child, Marion Peseux would do it.
My mother requested Miss Peseux when I left fifth-grade. My older brother, Gregory, had had her for sixth-grade four years earlier, and mom, a teacher herself, knew a great one when she saw one. It wasn’t so much that Miss Peseux believed in me, it was that she taught me to believe in myself. She would hand out our graded essays and quietly comment as she went along each row. The comment most frequently whispered to me was “You can do so much better than this, Taylor.” I would bow my head, stare at my desk top, and nod, “Yes, Miss Peseux.” Some how or other, I must have listened to her because my work improved dramatically.
Teachers today have to teach for results in standardized tests. I think that’s terrific if you’re making truck engines, not so much with young minds though. Miss Peseux’s lesson plans were built around life. Geography frequently consisted of her experiences exploring North America over summer driving vacations with her sister. I still remember her explanation of the huge tidal surges on Canada’s Bay of Fundy, as well as why Old Faithful in Yellowstone is, well ... faithful.
The most interesting thing she did however was to take us through the newspaper and point out things of interest, not in the news, but in the ads. Keep in mind that this era was the absolute renaissance of advertising in America; newspapers, magazines, radio and television were all going strong, and American families were, in the prosperous late 1950s and early ‘60s, seemingly in the market for a new everything.
Miss Peseux would fold her newspaper so that we could read an ad’s headline, but couldn’t see the product. We would then have to guess what the product was and why the advertiser had used that strategy. It was the only thing I was really good at in class. It made us think in ways we would call “out of the box” today, but back then we just considered it wondering, as in “I wonder why they’d do that?”
I’d love to tell you that Miss Peseux inspired me to greater academic achievement, but the truth is that by the beginning of seventh-grade I was back to being the same dumb ass I’d been before. After college, I did go on to have a very successful 37-year career in marketing. I even had my own column for four years inside the back cover of a leading marketing magazine. Each month, I’d dissect a different great marketing campaign and explain how and why it worked. I’m not entirely sure to this day where my great love of marketing came from.
My company and I won many awards for our work, including Best Retail Promotion in the World in 2001, the year Miss Peseux died. I wish I had gone home and shown her the write up we got so that I could tell her that this was what she’d done. I figure she would have just smiled that barely amused Miss Peseux smile and said “I knew you had it in you all along, Taylor.”
“Yes Miss Peseux,” I would have quietly replied, “but I didn’t know I had it in me until you taught me.”