Wednesday, May 5, 2010
National Teacher Day
The e-mail I received this morning from the American Academy of Poets celebrating National Teacher Day immediately brought a flood of memories.
One of my very few reservations about home education is that my own life has been so strongly influenced by many incredible, dedicated, impassioned teachers, and I feel like I am depriving our children of that bond between teacher and student that can change a student's life--that changed MY life.
From Miss Beal in first grade--not a beautiful woman but one who was self-possessed, unflappable, and unstintingly kind, to third grade with Miss Wells (later Mrs. Reynolds) with her hip blond shag and her permission to play records from home while we worked ("Puff the Magic Dragon" always brings memories of multiplication tables and "Sunshine on My Shoulders" of discovering the true delight of reading story after story after story), my elementary years were more about teachers than students. I was painfully shy, often picked upon by playground bullies. But I had a few friends to play hopscotch and jacks with--so I managed to survive. I was bright but not bright enough to be moved to the "smart class."
In fourth and fifth grades I discovered one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Glen Paul. An avid outdoorsman who spent summers fishing in Wyoming and Montana, Mr. Paul knew how to handle a class with aplomb and the appearance of freedom, occasionally resorting to the dreaded boy-girl-boy-girl seating arrangement when we took advantage of his kindness. I remember most clearly coming in, sweaty and breathless from afternoon recess and dropping into our seats, welcoming the coming quiet and peace of being read aloud to. With overhead lights off, Mr. Paul would open a book and read us a chapter from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Harriet the Spy, or The Great Brain. While his pleasant tenor voice read, we all caught our breath and often rested our heads on our arms, allowing the cool wood-grained formica of our desks to soothe our overheated faces.
Fridays were the best days, though. After math and reading, we were allowed to do art for the rest of the day and to have the entire afternoon to play outside--an extended recess. And just before we were let free for the weekend, we were allowed to rearrange our desks into any configuration we liked. We all loved gentle Mr. Paul who took such joy in science experiments, who brought in special art teachers for us, who taught us how to draw in perspective, who was an environmentalist long before it was "cool." During my 7th and 8th grade years, I came back to Mr. Paul's classroom as a teacher's aid, walking across the wide asphalt playground between the elementary and middle schools each day to grade spelling tests and math worksheets, carefully recording the grades in his blue grade book.
In eighth grade, I discovered one of my favorite teachers of all time: Millard Stanforth who taught English and American History. He passed away two years ago from Lou Gehrig's in his early 80's, and I was his only former student invited to attend the celebration of his life. I wrote about him here: Mr. Stanforth. From Mr. Stan I learned a love of both the English language and of American History--so much so that I wrote a research paper on The Battle of Gettysburg that received a perfect grade. When I graduated as Valedictorian from the middle school, Mr. Stan handed me my award at our graduation ceremony.
Then after I moved up to the high school across the street, I daily walked across the dew-damped soccer fields of Kennedy Park to be a teacher's assistant to Mr. Stan during 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. While at Granite Hills High School, I met an incredible trio of English teachers: Roberta (Bobbi) Jordan, Bea Jones, and Peter Sebastian. Mrs. Jordan was my freshman English teacher, and with her we walked through many of the short stories I now teach: "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Connell, "The Necklace" by Maupassant--all of which I'm currently teaching in my online Literary Analysis Class at Brave Writer. Mrs. Jordan wanted me to move up to the honors English track, and when I refused, she called my mother behind my back and wedged me into that AP class against my will--and to my benefit. She also taught an elective course in Shakespeare that stands me in excellent stead as I teach my One Thing: Shakespeare courses at Brave Writer each May; I always loved how she would insist on taking the juiciest parts for herself when we read the plays aloud in class--she was so passionate about the Bard, even to having us draw names and handmaking a gift in honor of Shakespeare's April 23rd birthday. From Mrs. Jones I learned to write a solid essay, despite papers bleeding with red inked corrections--and also learned to appreciate Dickens. And Mr. Sebastian taught me a passionate love of poetry as he leaned back in his chair reciting Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Poe by heart. He also taught me how to write poems, and my first verse was published in Granite Hills' literary magazine Reflections which I edited my senior year; my poetry also appeared in our yearbook as well. Because of the influence of these three passionate teachers, I knew I would also teach literature and poetry...some day.
My engagement to Keith occurred at our high school's senior prom, and I remember the concern in Mrs. Jordan's and Mrs. Jones' faces when I flashed my ring; they were afraid I wouldn't attend college and "have a life." But one can do both: I married Keith at the end of my freshman year at Point Loma Nazarene University, and in the Literature Department there I met my next group of incredible teachers: Art Seamans, the Romantic; Jim DeSaegher, the consummate editor, and also outside of the Literature Department I discovered kindred spirits in Dwayne Little in American History and Sam Powell in religion and philosophy. My senior year brought me another teacher, a mentor in fact, in Maxine Crain Walker, the professor who gently kicked my butt into graduate school--an option I never would have considered without her nudgings.
In graduate school at the University of San Diego, I found a couple more of those incredible teachers in Dr. Elizabeth Walsh, known affectionately as Sister Betsy to all and sundry, a tiny nun who received her doctorate from Harvard, and lesser influences in Joanne Dempsey (who passed away during our Milton seminar) and in Irene Williams who taught me a whole new way to write--exploratory, rather than academic, as a way to open us to fresh perspectives. Sister Betsy employed me as her research assistant, and together we worked on a project that was eventually published: Light of Learning: The Selected Essays of Morton W. Bloomfield.
And since graduate school I have discovered other teachers and mentors: Sue Edwards in developing my faith at Lake Murray Community Church, Judith Dupree and Kathryn Belsey in developing both faith and poetry, and online friends in Julie, Carol, Eve, Susan, Beth, Tia, Rachel, Carolyn, Lisa, Dalissa, Carrie, Sandy, Sandie, Suzy, Devin, and others who have taught me more than I can ever express.
Teachers are everywhere--in our childhood memories, in painful pubescent growth spurts, in fond college days, in grad school stress, and in years of young motherhood, now in the present, and, I pray, far into the future....
We only have to be teachable....