Thomas Wolfe said “You can’t go home again,” but I beg to differ.
I went home to Tyler, Texas over Spring Break. I went to spend some time with my mother, but I had another visit to make. I went home to see Mrs. Burnett. If you have read my blog, then you may remember that Mrs. Burnett was my sixth grade teacher--the teacher who taught me the beauty of words and the wonder of places and people beyond my own experience. I had a book to deliver to her and I thought I might need to hurry because Mrs. Burnett will be 100 in October.
The book was Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make by my friend Cindi Rigsbee. When Cindi was a national Teacher of the Year finalist, Good Morning America reunited her with her first grade teacher, Mrs. Warnecke. Cindi decided to share their experience in book form, and I was honored when she gave me an opportunity to add my story about Mrs. Burnett.
I shouldn’t have worried about being in a hurry. Mrs. Burnett is still going strong. She met me at her front door with the crisp greeting and smile that she had back in 1962. We talked about her travels and she taught me a mini-lesson on the history and construction of the Russian papier mâché boxes in her collection--her last reckless indulgence, she called them. As we backed out of the driveway, she gave me very specific instructions of how to navigate her narrow driveway.
We met some of my former classmates/her former students for lunch and while we were there, I gave her the book and told her I had written about her. She asked me to read it to her, and I admit I got all choked up. She patted my hand and told me that I really had been her favorite, but then she turned to Reeves and told him that he was one of her favorites too. We still knew our vocabulary words she taught us, and we could still recite Paul Revere’s Ride and Ozymandias. We recalled the shaping events of our middle school years, John Glenn orbited space, and when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was a time of tremendous change, but Mrs. Burnett taught us timeless lessons.
When I took Mrs. Burnett home, as we sat in the car and talked, I got up the nerve to ask her, “Mrs. Burnett, did you have any children of your own?” She smiled and patted my hand again and said, “No, but you were all my children, Susie.”
I wonder what has become of all Mrs. Burnett’s children. And I wonder if our current education environment will foster the sort of teacher/student bond that we had.
Obama's consistent education theme has been the wish that every child cross paths with that one teacher who hits the light switch and changes one's life. Each time he expresses some iteration of that thought, I suspect thousands or millions think briefly of the person who held that distinction in their life. The light master. Or, in my case, the one who extended an imaginary sprig of verbena and, holding it to his nose, inhaled deeply in a gesture of solidarity with William Faulkner.
There is a great deal of debate out there about how we define highly effective , how we can it can be quantified, compensated and replicated. Yet most of us know intuitively when we are in the presence of a great teacher. Transformative teachers have qualities that transcend test scores and data points and you know it when you see it.
There are some people who have the quality of richness and joy in them and they communicate it to everything they touch. It is first of all a physical quality; then it is a quality of the spirit.
Thomas Wolfe said that. He was talking about the teacher who inspired him, Margaret Roberts.
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