Fifth Day of Christmas: Terrific Teachers

Kindergarten was for the most part a pleasant time, though my most vivid memory of that year is of a sour disappointment.

We were required to demonstrate competence in tying our shoes, with a promised reward of a large gold star on our report card. I begged my mother to instruct me in the art of shoe-tying. Not understanding the high stakes, she did not feel a sense of urgency. There's no rush. Entering kindergarten at age 4 1/2, my motor skills were a bit behind those of my classmates. But like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and did learn to tie my shoelaces - only to discover on test day that we were not allowed to demonstrate competence on our own shoes. Presented with an outsized fake boot-shoe mounted on a platform, sitting on the teacher's desk facing us - wrong place, wrong height, pointing the wrong direction - I struggled to produce a bow. I was pleased with my result in this backwards formation, but my kindergarten teacher was not. It's too droopy. No gold star for droopy bows! Bitterly disappointed and angry, I felt I had been cheated. I had tied the laces on both my shoes at home that morning.  Years later, this teacher, who went to the same church as my grandparents, would remark upon The Droopy Bow every time she saw me. "You were such a bright kid, but you just couldn't tie your shoelace! It was too droopy! I couldn't give you a gold star!" Well into my college years, I dreaded seeing her at my grandparents' church.

Most of my grade school teachers loom as frightening or at best oddly disconcerting presences in my memory - teachers who carried wooden paddles and used them on our small bodies, teachers tightly focused on discipline, teachers who weren't shy about letting us know who among us was hopelessly stupid and undeserving of their precious teaching time. Here I do not exaggerate. I had a third-grade teacher who divided us into five reading groups based on how well we could read and announced one day that she did not have time to waste teaching the "slow readers" in group five - from now on, the group one readers would instruct the group five readers while she dealt with the rest of the class. I still remember the shy boy D. who was assigned me as his "reading teacher" and often wondered how his life turned out. Did he learn somehow to love books and reading? Did he ever find encouragement for anything he was interested in?

Among this sea of misery, there were a few terrific teachers. Two beloved teachers in grade school were Miss Phillips and Miss Pekar.

Miss Phillips was our music teacher. The precious time spent in her classroom was a gift. She had small percussion instruments for us to play - a triangle, a tambourine, maracas, bells, and the like - and she led us in singing. We watched filmstrips in her classroom about music and with musical accompaniment. I vividly remember one about folk music. It was the first time I heard the song "Blowin' In The Wind," the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, and I was so overwhelmed by the music and lyrics that I memorized it as I was listening to it. Miss Phillips vanished from our school one day, and the adults in our lives began to whisper about her, and then we learned a new word, leukemia, and a new sadness.

Miss Pekar was my fifth grade teacher and the one who brought the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond into my life. We read it together as a class, and we also read Charlotte's Web. When I think of Miss Pekar, I see her walking slowly around our classroom, reading a passage from one of these books, before turning the reading over to us. We each read a paragraph aloud in turn - no Group One readers "teaching" neglected and shamed Group Five readers in her class, we were all one group reading together. Miss Pekar also memorably one day brought into class a large box of books and said anyone could have any book in the box that they wanted. Oh joy! Free books! I was first to the box and what did I find? The collected plays of William Shakespeare! I recognized the name as important, also, there was just more book per book in that book than any of the other kid books in the box. A better deal! "I want this book," I said. She took the book from me and turned it over in her hands, looking doubtful. "How did this book get into the box?" I can still hear her saying that, almost to herself. "You said any book!" I said, with a child's clear sense of justice. "I'll tell you what. You can borrow it for awhile and read it if you like but then you have to return it to me." And that is how I came to read - or skim read - many of Shakespeare's plays in the fifth grade. Except for excerpts of two plays read in senior English class, that is the only time I read Shakespeare in my schooling, and the source of my (garbled) understanding of the Bard.

Three high school teachers belong in this narrative.

Mrs. Miller, my high school algebra and trig teacher was not popular with students, but by golly she taught me algebra and trig. I had no deficiencies there. If our school had actually offered calculus I have no doubt she would have been as thorough in her instruction of that subject. I still have the TI-30 scientific calculator she made us all buy in senior year - it cost my parents $30, in 1979 - because calculators were the way of the future and we needed to learn how to use them.

Mrs. Long, my typing teacher was fierce. She was as rigorous and as hard on errors as my trig teacher. She gave me a skill I have used throughout my life, one that carried me through typing my term papers on an old manual typewriter using onion skin and carbon paper, to typing on an electric typewriter with wite-out, to typing on a keyboard at a mainframe using LaTex to format my master's thesis, to typing on a PC to write my PhD thesis, to typing this blog post on a laptop. I don't know what she'd make of thumb typing emoji texters today. Maybe she'd just consider it another form of shorthand, which she also taught, back in the day.

Lastly, Mrs. Shuttlesworth, my freshman year French and English teacher, did teach me French, and did teach me some song lyrics could be analyzed just like poetry (reminding me of my beloved Miss Phillips and that encounter with Blowin' In The Wind - hey, didn't the Nobel Committee have something to say about that?!?) Even more than that, she gave me a sense that I should value my intellect, and that I should strive for something beyond the confines of my known world.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of this in a sea of schooling that was often anti-intellectual or just downright incompetent. Some teachers meant well, but some didn't care, or had given up, or were in over their heads. Nobody - and by nobody I mean nobody in Harrisburg - cared if coal miner's and farmer's kids in Greene County, PA weren't getting a world class education, or didn't have adequate resources in their schools, or didn't have access to enrichment programs. The odds were against us students. But: The teachers who did do a good job, who sang to and with us, who read to and with us, who taught us cosine secant tangent sine! 3.14159! , who taught us a useful skill while embodying competence, confidence, and intelligence - these teachers were terrific when all the odds were against them, too.


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