Education Opinion

David Greene: I am the Seed Miss Stafford Planted

By Anthony Cody — March 04, 2011 6 min read
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Today I offer the reflections of veteran teacher David Greene, who shares with us a story of the teacher in his life who made all the difference for him.

All I ever needed to learn I learned, not in kindergarten, but in second grade. Truth be told, I don’t remember much of kindergarten and first grade except nap time, blocks, being scolded for not wanting to nap, and having my mother told that I needed “testing”. I never sure what Mrs. Bunned Witch meant by that. I think she meant psychological. It was before ADD was the easy answer. I prefer that she meant gifted and talented. Turns out it was probably both.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, up to the age of 5 I had no idea of what school I was to attend. Pre-school was nice enough. I loved Gene, my one armed driver. Seriously, he only had one arm and smoked like a chimney. I shudder to think what would be thought of him now. “That pervert can’t work in a preschool.” But back in the early 1950’s it was ok, he was related to the boss, I went to kindergarten in PS 96, the Bronx. It was in the nice, mostly Jewish (at the time) Pelham Parkway area. I wasn’t there long. My mom and I had to move out of our nice digs to my grandmother’s place in the south Bronx. I didn’t know then that we were evicted for lack of rent. Dad was not very forthcoming with the monthly child support and alimony payments and mom’s job in the garment district as a former model turned Gal Friday paid her slave wages. She had no union. So, like little red riding hood, it was off to grandmother’s (Mom’s mom) I went, and PS 61, on Boston Road to finish kindergarten. You might know grandma’s place. President Jimmy Carter visited the area. She lived on Minford Place and Charlotte Street.

Somehow we were able to move to our own place a few blocks away on Longfellow Ave. and 172nd street, a block from my new scholastic home, PS 66. It was there that I endured Mrs. B.W. in class 1-3. I have one class picture of me in a cowboy outfit. It must have been Halloween. I was smiling. Like I said, I don’t remember much of 1st grade. Actually, I don’t remember much of 3rd, 4th, or 6th grades either. I skipped 5th grade. I guess I really was gifted. I only remember 6th grade because of my most embarrassing moment in school. You know the one when you want to hide, not only under the screwed to the floor desks, but under the floor they were screwed into. Mrs. Blank (I have a mental block that prevents me from remembering her actual name.) was going over some spelling list I was not particularly interested in. Actually after 2nd grade, there wasn’t much in school I was interested in except playing ball in the schoolyard. My second grade teacher spoiled me.

Anyway, Ms. 6th grade witch was giving each person in the room a word to spell and pronounce. After realizing there were enough words to reach me in my seat in the last row, I figured out which word I was going to have to spell and pronounce. “Oh s--t.” I thought, “I have no idea how to pronounce it. a.w.k.w.a.r.d. What the freak kind of word is that?” I had never seen it, heard it spoken, let alone know its meaning. Pretty ironic, huh? “Hmm, is it owkword? Awwwkwaaard?” “Oh no, and now she says, “David, please do word number 26", or whatever number it was. I fumbled for the right pronunciation, screwed it up, spelled it, then as we all had to do back then, say it again.... incorrectly, while listening to the chuckles of my classmates and Mrs. Blank telling me to try again. As a result this experience would never be forgotten. It was a moment that probably led me to teaching, although I didn’t realize it back then.

PS 66 was in the part of the Bronx that was changing rapidly. It was a place where white (mostly Jewish) flight had already started. It was a well “integrated” school with fewer and fewer white students annually. It was a rainbow school. Black, Puerto Rican and some white kids just played together and went to classes together. We didn’t know anything else. We were all the same to each other, although I do remember my Mom saying that all people deserve equal rights but that I couldn’t bring a “colored” into the house. I believed the first statement and I was forced to follow the second.

That takes me back to 2nd grade. Miss Stafford was our teacher. She must have been the ripe old age of 23. We had no idea. We were 7. In 1956 and 1957 she was ancient. She was also incredible. When she passed away in 2009 several of us from her 2nd grade class were at her memorial service. This is who she was to the world.

Dr. Rita Dunn, professor at St. John's University for nearly 40 years, died August 1 at her home in Pound Ridge after a short but valiant struggle with breast cancer. Dr. Rita Dunn, an authority on learning styles, a professor in the Division of Administrative and Instructional Leadership and the director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles became an inspiring, internationally renowned professor of higher education; prolific author of 32 textbooks and more than 450 manuscripts and research papers; the recipient of 31 professional research awards, and expert on using individual learning styles to improve teaching. During her career at St. Johns, Dr. Dunn mentored more than 160 doctoral students, many of whom now occupy positions of leadership throughout the world.
In 1995, Dr. Dunn received St. John's University's highly competitive first Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching. She and her doctoral students have been involved in 37 years of prize-winning research. Researchers at more than 130 institutions of higher education have participated in international research on the Dunn and Dunn Model and have published more than 830 studies...
Rita was a woman who possessed unusual intellectual abilities. Along with her manifold personal qualities she had a powerful analytical intelligence. Her devotion to education was unparalleled."

(NYTimes.com, August 7, 2009)

We had no idea who she was going to become. At the time, neither did she. Little did we know as 7 year olds entering Rita Stafford’s class 2-1 in PS 66, Bx. in September of 1956, that we were to become the happy guinea pigs for a life dedicated to helping children with all kinds of “personalities”, as we called it then.

People marvel when they are told of what Rita did for us. They marvel at our advanced work. They marvel at our activities. They marvel at our reunions every Christmas time for 12 years, and at our last reunion, eight years ago this month. [44 years after our second grade class]

I can’t count the number of times I have told students and teaching colleagues how we learned about the solar system by building one and hanging it from the ceiling; or about civil rights by writing letters to President Eisenhower. (We even received a reply and were quoted in the New York Times.)

She inspired me to become a teacher. Those activities were the seeds of every “outrageous” activity I ever cooked up for use in my classrooms. The more I look back on my body of teaching and work, the more I see how indebted I am to her. I used a variety of styles because I knew, not intrinsically, but because I experienced it in her second grade classroom, that they were necessary to reach more kids.

Over the past dozen years or so I have become increasingly interested in the rise of the number of underachieving boys in our society. The more I read about the subject the more I realize that she was right on the money those 53 years ago. Both directly as a teacher, and indirectly, through her research and training sessions, she saved countless students from failure. I know she saved me.

Over the years, I have never stopped talking about her. In addition to students and teachers, I have spoken about her to several colleagues involved in this latest endeavor. I have told the Teach For America teachers I mentor in the Bronx about her. She is their model.

I will continue to tell everyone I know about her. She was my hero. My work shall forever be in her honor and name.

I am the seed she planted in my head.
She proved to me that in any one year, any one teacher could make a difference to any one student. The great ones do it for so many more. What will we do now to make more great ones like Rita Stafford Dunn?

Mr. Greene has been referenced by Christina Hoff Sommers, in her book, The War against Boys. He has given talks on the issues of boys in schools in Scarsdale and for Dominican College. He assisted in the organization of The Foundation For Male Studies’ Second Annual Conference On Male Studies: Looking Forward to Solutions. He has had work published in Ed Week on line and has also been referenced by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post web based column, The Answer Sheet. Finally, he is a regular contributor to The Teachers Talk Back Blog and is also currently working on a book tentatively titled, So You Think You Know Education? A Teacher’s Perspective.

What teachers planted seeds in YOUR head? How have they grown?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.