They taught you. They challenged you. They changed you. They’re the memorable teachers in your life. The other day I heard the rumble of a school bus and thought of those educators who made a difference. What made them special? What made them succeed? How did they get under that “school-sucks” barbed wire? Maybe it was these five qualities…
Kindness – First grade was horrifying. We had to sit in rows of desks instead of circle time like kindergarten. One day I’m sitting there and have to go the bathroom. I know I should raise my hand but I’m too shy.
Instead, I hope no one notices the little puddle under my seat. Of course Mrs. Wilkinson does. She discreetly asks to speak to me in the hall. I follow, wanting to die. Once there she crouches down to my level. She asks in a soft voice if I had an accident. I nod, mortified. She smiles, touches my cheek and tells me its okay. We all make mistakes. I still remember that moment. I remember thinking that despite all those hard desks in a row, parts of school were soft and nice.
Fun – Seventh grade English teacher Miss Carlson is plump and blond. She tries hard, sometimes too hard. For Halloween she dresses as a goofy witch. She calls her students, “My Chickadees.” She hands out candies to pupils who make an effort. We roll our eyes. We’re not kids anymore. And yet something strange happens.
I want to do well for Miss Carlson. I don’t care about subjects and predicates and passive tense. But when I ace a test, she stamps pictures of happy cats up top. She jumps up and down when the class does well. She tries to make school fun and in her own way she does. I like to see Miss Carlson laugh. I try harder.
Inspiration – Mr. DeWolfe is tall, rangy with crazy dark hair and a black beard. He’s been teaching high school freshman writing since the Pleistocene Era. At first I don’t care. I do his homework quickly. But one day he assigns an essay. What’s a favorite place? I choose Cape Cod. I describe how the water’s blue-green and the beach smells like Coppertone suntan lotion. I write how I love walking barefoot on the cool sand.
And later I get back the paper with an A. “This is Laurie” is written up top. I stare at those words. Mr. DeWolfe sees something I don’t. From then on, I start paying attention. Mr. DeWolfe lights a fire that lasts a lifetime.
Humanity — Senior year of high school. I can’t wait for all this to end. College beckons. But then one day the world shifts. New teacher Mr. Proudfoot strolls into English class. He’s young and blond, wears turtlenecks and love beads (yes, this was the early seventies). Sometimes he sits cross-legged on his desk.
He talks about feeling depressed and what it’s like to love someone and lie in bed at night, listening to the rain. After brain-numbing math and science classes, my seventeen-year-old soul rejoices. Mr. Proudfoot talks about cool, poetic, interesting things. He helps me realize my feelings aren’t odd. Others feel isolated, insecure and out of step. We’re all scared. We’re all doing our best, he tells us.
Passion – I’m not sure what to expect in College Shakespeare. And when I see Father Lynch, I’m even more befuddled. Somehow I ended up in this small Connecticut Jesuit College. And since I don’t go to church often, I haven’t met many clergy. This one’s different than expected. He leans on his podium, taking long drags from an unfiltered Camel. (Yes, in the seventies, people smoked in class).
Father Lynch has this intense Spencer Tracy quality. Between puffs he quotes from “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” with such vigor, he almost spits out the words. We sit rapt. By the end of the year, I’m smitten. I want to love something as much as Father Lynch loves “King Lear” and “Twelfth Night.” I want to find my passion.
The years go by. I hear those yellow buses and think of those people sometimes, those memorable teachers. The young ones are old. Some are probably gone.
Yet they left their mark. Maybe it’s not what they taught, or how they taught. Maybe it was who they were. All I know is I wasn’t the same person when I left their classroom. I was better.
I wish I had told them thank you.
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