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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as My Favorite Year

My Favorite Year

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Whenever I meet kids in 2nd grade, I ask what they're doing in school. Are you learning fractions? Can you spell automobile? Do you follow current events, read chapter books, write stories, have a class pet? It's been 30 years since my own days in 2nd grade, but I remember them with great fondness. Why? Because my 2nd grade teacher was the best teacher I ever had.

During that tumultuous year of 1968, when riots would erupt at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in the streets of Paris, and at the Olympics in Mexico City, we had our own protest movement at P.S. 11 in working-class Manhattan. The winter was bitterly cold, and some mothers challenged the school's no-pants rule for girls, sending their daughters off in the morning with legs covered. It was a defiant move, but there was one thing pants-wearing girls could be sure of: Miss Fader would never send you to the principal's office.

When we learned fractions, Miss Fader brought in pies, cut them in half, then quarters, then eighths, and then gave us the slices to eat. It was the last time in my life I really understood a mathematical concept. When we learned spelling, Miss Fader wrote automobile on the board and made us proud to know such a long word at such a young age. And she was ahead of her time in terms of reform. Tradition demanded that students sit in rows with the teacher standing in front, yet I remember many hours spent clustered in small reading groups. We also had the freedom to sit in the back of the room and watch Percy, a tiny snail and the class's beloved pet, chug along his terrarium floor. Or we could go to a window seat and write stories using a manual typewriter that was as inviting then as computers stocked with Disney CD-ROMs are today.

It was at that typewriter that I chose my career as a journalist. There was a stack of yellow rag paper--the fuzzy, mottled kind, cheaper than newsprint, suitable mostly as scrap--lying next to the shiny black machine, and I can remember the soft feel of it as I picked up a piece and rolled it in, then pecked out the letters as I wrote my first story. I knew then and there that I wanted to become a writer--that I was a writer.

Twenty-five years later, as I recounted this story to a fellow reporter, I realized the debt I owed Miss Fader. I had a vague idea of where she lived and found her listing in the phone book. But I wasn't sure what I wanted to say. I put her number aside and forgot about it--for awhile. A year later, after my first son was born, I began to think more about early childhood development, and I dialed her up one Sunday afternoon.

"Is that Helen Fader?" I asked, although I recognized the crackly, high-pitched voice edged with a bit of a New York accent that had answered "Hello." I identified myself a bit hesitatingly, unsure whether she would remember me. But I needn't have worried.

"Beth," she exclaimed. "How's your mother?" She remembered that year as well as I did--better, in fact. I told her how much her class had meant to me, and how I had chosen my career sitting at the typewriter in the back. When I recounted the discussion after King's murder and recalled the comment of my classmate whose mother was so upset, she said, "Yes, that was Damon Wayans. I had his older brother Keenan, too."

Talking with Miss Fader, I couldn't help but wonder how many other kids might have come just a little closer to fulfilling their dreams in part because of this wonderful woman. So when I meet teachers now--especially elementary school teachers--I tell them a little bit about Miss Fader and her impact on my life. And as my 5-year-old son gets closer to 2nd grade, I can only hope that his year will be half as meaningful as mine was.

--Beth Harpaz

The author is a reporter with the Associated Press in New York City.

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Page 51

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