To My Former Students: Walt Whitman Was Right

Dear Former Students,

I talked about you today. It’s funny – I actually bring you up quite a bit in conversations. Our time together was a mere five years before I started a family of my own and never returned to the classroom. But clearly, those five years made an impression on me. You made an impression on me.

Some of you I still know. Maybe we grab lunch every now and again. Maybe we keep in contact on social media. Maybe we cross paths in the small world that is our city. Maybe we run into each other at a bar, and I become embarrassed that I am clearly not sober even though I am no longer your teacher and you are no longer my student and we are both within our legal right to over-indulge. But the thing is, you could be seventy-five years old, and I could be eighty-five years old, yet I would still think of you as one of “my girls.” And I would still feel the same responsibility to be a good example, to hold you to high expectations, and to count your head on a bus to make sure I wasn’t leaving anyone behind on a field trip. Continue reading “To My Former Students: Walt Whitman Was Right”

The Tragedy of Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird in Middle School

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

As if on cue, eighteen or so sets of preteen eyes would turn and stare at me, sitting behind them at a desk with a small ballpoint tattoo on the bottom left corner. They were looking for the tears I had promised them. Pulling out a tissue as a white flag of sorts, I conceded, “Every time. I told you, every…single…time.” Satisfied, they all turned their heads back to the television screen and continued watching a story unfold of which they already knew the ending.

middle school and to kill a mockingbird by harper lee To Kill A Mockingbird was a staple of my second semester curriculum as an eighth grade English teacher, which was something I simultaneously loved and hated. The book, by far, was my favorite unit to teach because, you know, that whole “one of the greatest books of all time” thing. I never tired of rereading it, and the rich story and dynamic characters made it a veritable treasure trove for engaging lesson plans and assignments. However, I also felt a particular sadness that the real brilliance of the book was lost on the average eighth grade mind, and I mourned that so many people are probably introduced to this masterpiece way too early to really appreciate it. I mean, these were kids who never failed to derail a class discussion by relating to the most insignificant detail in a story and running with it. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird in Middle School”

My Name is Miss Grace, And I Am Your Teacher

kids playing schoolI think my daughter is enjoying first grade. She has been spending a lot of time at home today playing school. Well, not actually playing school…preparing to play school. She has taught very little. Her entire afternoon has been filled with making math workbooks, rearranging furniture, creating alphabet lessons, and making a list of rules which apparently does not include a dress code, since her only pupil Michael is attending class in his underwear. She has informed him that the most important rule is “no burping, along with no fighting and no stealing.” I’m finding her to be a very perceptive teacher. Already, she knows her student well.

She does, however, have her work cut out for her. Michael is not always such a willing participant in her games. Even after starting the school day with recess, she still had to bribe him with money to get him to stay and be her student for a bit longer. To be honest, I’m not sure where she is getting said money, or what the heck my three-year-old would do with it once he had it. And I’m not convinced it is going to buy her much of his attention span. All that prep work for very little payout. Welcome to the real world of teaching, Grace.

As I sit here at the computer, playing the role of principal that was assigned to me, I overhear what is possibly a shining moment of genius on my daughter’s part. The conversation is as follows:

Grace: “Why do we have A?”

Michael: “Because it’s a cupcake.” (laughs at what was apparently a joke)

Grace: “Okaaaaaayyyy. Why do we have B?”

Michael: “Because it’s like F.”

Grace: “It is kind of like F. (drawing on the chalkboard) If you get rid of these two big bellies and put two lines at the top, you get F. That’s why I like B,…because it’s like F and F is my third favorite letter.”

Well, I’ll be. Maybe this little girl will follow in her mama’s footsteps one day after all. But she still has a lot to learn about classroom control. Michael keeps running away to find something new to play as Grace yells after him, “You have to have my permission! Do you know what permission means? It means you have to ask me if you can leave!”

I guess that’s my cue to bring him into the principal’s office and call his mom. I hope she’s not one of those parents who blames everything on the teacher. I hate those people.

A Lesson for a Teacher

A few nights ago I had dinner with a former student of mine. She had recently found me on Facebook, was coincidentally back in town, and she wanted to catch up. I was elated. It is always a treat to have these little versions of “What Are They Doing Now?” whenever my path crosses with an old student. As a teacher, I could not help but get invested in my “girls,” as I would call them (no, it is not that I ignored the boys…I taught at an all-girls Catholic high school). It is the nature of the craft.

I have gotten together to catch up with students before; some I even talk to on a fairly regular basis. Inevitably there are always kids you grow a little closer to: you taught them for multiple years, you helped them solve an important problem, and so on. I always seemed to strike up a deeper relationship with my Yearbook students since the nature of that class afforded us all to chat about our lives; therefore, I knew them all a little better. These were usually the kids that would shoot me an email when they were in town to grab some lunch and catch up.

But this time was a little different. This particular former student was in the very first class I taught as a fledgling teacher. They were a great class, and we all got along smashingly, her included. She was a good student, but art was her thing, not English. So after leaving my class, she became one of the many students who would still say hello to me in the hallways, and that became the course of our relationship until she graduated. I was just as proud to see her receive her diploma as I was of any of my students, but then I never saw her again. As far as I knew, she didn’t give me another thought. It happens.

But then we met up the other night, and it was wonderful to hear about where life had taken her. She is an amazing, and I mean AMAZING, artist, and it was beautiful to see how she has found the courage and strength to find what will make her feel happy and fulfilled. When I told her how delighted I was that she had contacted me, and how it is always a nice little surprise when students find me on Facebook, she replied, “Of course! Who wouldn’t want to ‘friend’ you on Facebook? We always had fun in your class!” Well, shucks. But seriously, that was a wonderful validation for me, even now that I am not teaching anymore. I know how much of myself I put into being a teacher; I know how much I racked my brain for ways to keep my students interested; I know how much I agonized when they were not working to their potentials, or when I just could not seem to get something across to them. But they did not know that. So it felt really good to hear that somehow it all came through, and even better to hear it from a student I would not have expected.

Photo via Karen Watson liscensed under CC BY 2.0
Photo via Karen Watson on The Graphics Fairy liscensed under CC BY 2.0

Now I sit here and think of all the teachers I had over the course of my education and wonder how many of them realized the impact they had on me. My grade school Music teacher Miss Mooney, who undoubtedly created the connection in my brain that music equals fun, and who taught me that everyone has the right to sing by giving me a solo in the spring concert…despite my lack of tone and pitch. My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Semsar, who taught me that some things in life are just “no big hairy deal.” My middle school Science teacher Mrs. Lonigro, who was so knowledgable and passionate that she made me love regenerating amoebas, and who probably taught me more about the written language with her strict grading policies than my middle school English teacher. My eighth grade History teacher Mr. Blackford, who was the first adult, nay person, to really and truly encourage my love for the Monkees by giving me his old Mike Nesmith-inspired wool hat. My high school Art teacher Ms. Ahrens, who taught me that you do not have to be the best, but you have to do your best. My high school English teacher Miss Wilson, who gave me my first B in the subject, pushing me to reach her expectations, and who told me that my dreams of being an English teacher were still achievable even if I did not completely understand Shakespeare at age fifteen. My high school Latin teacher Domina Creed, who, dare I say, made Latin fun, and who called me after I had four teeth pulled to make sure I was feeling okay. My university History professor who once lectured a whole class period in the character of a stockbroker who lost everything during the Crash of 1929. My university English professor Dr. Preussner, who opened my eyes to the fact that Hawthorne was kind of a “hottie” and who made discussing Melville kind of interesting (sue me, I am not a fan). And finally, my high school Math teacher Mr. Stein who blew my mind by using the current love triangle on Days of Our Lives to explain inductive and deductive reasoning, and who, more than anyone, made me want to be a teacher.

This list of ladies and gentlemen boasts an astounding amount of talent. And if in any way I had the same impact on my students that they had on me, I am truly humbled.