Our neighborhood will celebrate Memorial Day with a picnic in my yard this afternoon. We will remember those who served and died in service to our country in our armed forces. With no intention of minimizing military service, I would like to remember some individuals who gave their lives, not by dying, but by serving their country consistently over the years.
Today on Memorial Day I can’t help but think of all those who invested a lifetime in service to their fellow citizens in classrooms across our nation. They have served quietly and without fanfare, but they have certainly helped shape our nation. They are teachers and I would like to tell you about three who will always be with me.
Miss Stevens: My first grade teacher who recognized and dealt with learning disabilities that didn’t have names in 1956. I am mildly dyslectic—right and left are, to this day, a problem for me. Miss Stevens realized this when I often put the wrong hand over my heart for the morning Pledge of Allegiance. “Susie, pick up your pencil as if you were going to write. That’s your right hand.” To this day, when someone gives directions for right and left, that #2 pencil is virtually in my right hand.
I also had a pretty bad speech impediment--I dropped my “Rs”. I went to the speech therapist once a week, and I was sure it was because she was prepping me to be the announcer at the first grade assembly program. I began my teaching career at my double desk in Miss Stevens’ room. Becky was so impressed with my forays to the “speech lady” that she wanted me to teach her how to say “giwaffe” and “wabbit” so that she could go too. I did not master “Mothers and Fathers” in time for the program. Miss Stevens made me Rhythm Band Director instead. She still remembered my first efforts at instruction when Becky and I were in our forties.
Thanks to Miss Stevens, the traditionalist, I never knew I had learning limitations. I knew I was special.
Mrs. Burnett: My sixth grade history and language arts teacher who understood cognition before we called it that and who taught me to love language and “set high expectations” before high expectations were buzz words. She wore beautiful and expensive shoes that came from Leon’s, the best shop in town, and although she was a tiny woman, students quaked when she gave them her “teacher look” over the top of her half glasses. We wrote reports on mythology, important historical sites, and the Seven Wonders of the World. My first experience with research began with my World Book Encyclopedias. I was suppose to write about the Acropolis. I began at aardvark and worked my way back. Knowing just to know was fun.
Each week we had two prefixes and two suffixes to learn and two vocabulary words for each one we had to learn. On Fridays we had cumulative vocabulary tests—no true-false or matching—a blank piece of paper and either recall the word or write the definition. By the time we finished the last 400-word test I had a mastery of etymology. When I was recognized as a Teacher of the Year forty years later, she wrote to congratulate me, saying that she knew when I was eleven that I had potential as an educator. When I wrote her back I made sure I double checked my spelling, punctuation, and handwriting.
Thanks to Mrs. Burnett, the classicist, who I realize now was a true scholar, who gave me the gifts of intellectual curiosity and academic rigor and made me a darned good Jeopardy player.
Mrs. McMillan: My junior Honors English teacher, who understood the importance of critical thinking skills and value of project-based learning even though it marked her as “unconventional” and “subversive” in 1967. One Friday a month our homework was a reading from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. It opened up a whole new world of organized thought and I started asking questions that pushed against my preconceived answers. It had never occurred to me that “truth” had a bigger meaning than “not telling a lie.”
Once we had begun to think, she expected us to apply those skills. The last month of our junior year she divided us into four groups of six and assigned us one of Shakespeare’s comedies. She told us that at the end of the month we would perform a one-hour version. We could not paraphrase, we could not rewrite, but we could use the editor’s red pen with complete freedom and then she put each group in a separate room and checked up on us every day or so. We thought we had total freedom and control! She knew that she was forcing us to deconstruct the plot and identify critical text while not losing touch with the playfulness of words nor the universal stories. We were taking responsibility for our own learning.
We were ruthless and probably profane. We identified subplots and cut them. We even edited Jacque’s “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy from As You Like It, but we also memorized more than we cut. Mrs. McMillan probably remembers us as the beginning of the end. She didn’t return to the classroom the year after we graduated. The administration was concerned because it was felt she was encouraging too much “free thinking.”
Thanks to Mrs. McMillan the constructivist and rebel, who demonstrated that people learn best when allowed to take control and responsibility for their own learning and who taught me, at sixteen, to think with my head as well as my heart.
What teacher do you remember?
What student will remember you?
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.