Sunday, August 3, 2008

What My Teachers REALLY Taught Me

For all of you teachers who wonder if you're making a difference...let me assure you that you are. Please believe me when I say that there is at least once child out there whom you've permanently touched. That child may very well be an adult now but continues to use something he or she learned from you.

I might not remember how to diagram a sentence or how to balance an algebraic equation. I am no longer able to conjugate verbs in French. But there are some more important and more meaningful lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Kay Wilson, 1st grade - I did not attend kindergarten, so the 1st grade was my first year in the school system. On the last day of school, I remember crying for much of the day after I got home. I was crying because I was going to miss Mrs. Wilson, and I wanted her to always be my teacher. I was very shy as a little girl, and Mrs. Wilson had made me feel comfortable and safe at school. I had formed an emotional attachment to her, and I was convinced that there would never be another teacher like her. This is my very first memory of a genuine sense of loss and grief.

Patti Salenius, 3rd grade - Good manners were a must as far as Mrs. Salenius was concerned. She taught us to say "sir" and "ma'am". When we failed to address adults in this manner, she made us write sentences. One day in class, she used two toy telephones to teach us about telephone etiquette. I learned that you should allow a phone to ring at least ten times before hanging up just in case the person was too far away from the phone to answer after just a few rings (this was before answering machines and voicemail). I learned that when I am the one placing the call, I should immediately identify myself to the person answering the phone. I learned to say, "May I ask who's calling?" rather than "Who's this?". It's been 33 years since I was in the 3rd grade, but I still carry these things with me today. I'm often described as "polite", and I give a great deal of credit for this to Mrs. Salenius.

John Magness, 4th grade - There was a girl in our class whom I'll call Becky. Becky was not very popular with the other kids. She was a know-it-all, and she was happy to point out other students' weaknesses. She talked too much. She was snobby. She was arrogant. She tried too hard to fit in with the popular kids---she came across as phony. Becky also came from a poor family, which did not help her case at all. Becky's clothes were obviously hand-me-downs, and they were not the stylish clothes that the popular kids were wearing. Sometimes, Becky came to school wearing dirty clothes; her face and hair were sometimes unwashed. I recall her coming to school on some days with bruises on various parts of her body. As a result, Becky was often a target of verbal bullying from the mean-spirited and socially powerful kids, especially the girls. The popular girls could smell weakness in her, and they pounced quickly and often.

Mr. Magness was a kind and fair man. He laid out his policy on discipline on Day 1, and he never deviated from it. Everyone was treated equally. If he had "favorites', he never showed it. Mr. Magness had a paddle he called "Mr. Goodbody". Boys received one smack to their rumps, and girls to the palms of their hands. Mr. Magness did not derive any sadistic joy or pleasure from paddling us. He didn't make a show out of it. He was simply holding us accountable and teaching us about consequences. Not having your homework was an infraction for which it was understood that you would be punished---no exceptions. One day, Becky came to class without her homework. Everyone knew immediately that this very unpopular little girl was about to be paddled in front of all of us, and this brought on cheers and taunts from some kids in the class. They were like piranhas converging on a sickly little goldfish.

And then something strange happened---Becky burst into tears. I don't mean that she cried "I don't want to get paddled so I'll try to cry my way out of it" tears. She sobbed like someone who was conceding defeat. She wept like someone who was exhausted and was giving up. She was completely vulnerable and exposed. Becky defiantly stuck her palm out and through her tears she shouted "Do it! Just do it! It's what they all want to see anyway!" And she just stood there, sobbing, with her palm extended, staring up at Mr. Magness. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the look of compassion and sadness that overtook that man's face. Everyone was silent, and all we could hear was Becky trying to stifle her sobs. In a soft and gentle voice, Mr. Magness said "Sit down, Becky" as he lowered Mr. Goodbody to his side. He then assigned "busy work" to the rest of us, and he took Becky out into the hallway, shutting the door behind them. They later returned, and Becky was much calmer, though her eyes were red and swollen. I remember feeling incredibly sad for the rest of the day. Later, I would learn that Becky's homelife was pretty crummy. Mr. Magness obviously knew that; he also knew that there was something more to Becky not having her homework that day other than mere irresponsibility. He was the personification of compassion and mercy, and that moment is forever burned in my memory. He has a place in my heart as one of my most favorite teachers--ever.

Diane Burnette, 6th grade English - One of our assignments was to read a biography and write a book report about it; additionally, we had to write it from the first person point of view. I chose to read and write about President Andrew Jackson. Miss Burnette was passing out the graded papers. Before she handed mine to me, she asked that I step out in the hallway with her. Iwas terrified! In my experience, the only people who ever got asked to step out into the hallway were kids who were in big trouble. I was quite anxious as I followed her out the door, and I was trying to figure out what my transgression could possibly have been. Once there, Miss Burnette proceeded to tell me that I was an excellent writer and that I should consider a career in journalism. While my teachers always had a tendency to like me, I had never ever had one to single out a specific talent and encourage me to pursue it as a career. I was on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day! She handed me my graded paper, and "100" was written across the top in red ink. I don't know that Miss Burnette ever realized how much that moment meant to me. I wonder if she knew that I would still be talking about it 30 years later?

Pauline Yoder, 7th grade social studies - On the first day of 7th grade, Miss Yoder introduced herself to us. She was looking down at her planner, and she said, "Today's agenda---" and then she looked up at us and asked "Does anyone here know what 'agenda' means?" None of us knew, so she explained to us what an "agenda" is. Everyday for the rest of the year, she started class with that same phrase: "Today's agenda consists of...." We would even try to anticipate when she would say it and try to say it with her. This, of course, had nothing to do with social studies, but she saw an opportunity to teach us something, and she took it. The word "agenda" still makes me think of Miss Yoder.

Ann Williams, 9th grade U.S. history - She picked five students from our class, and I was one of them. She assigned each of us a U.S. history topic, and we were to teach it to the class as Mrs. Williams observed. I was assigned the task of teaching about President Andrew Johnson's presidency and his subsequent impeachment. I worked hard to prepare myself, and I thought it went well. Later that same day, I passed Mrs. Williams in the stairwell. She stopped me and hugged me, telling me that I had done a wonderful job and that I would make an excellent teacher. That moment meant the world to me, and it helped to boost my self-confidence which was lagging a little bit at that time.

Martin Eaddy, principal of my junior high school - One day, I was walking across the blacktop at school, and I noticed a piece of trash on the ground. I stopped, picked it up, and I placed it in a trashcan. I continued on my way to class when I noticed Mr. Eaddy bursting through a doorway and flagging me down. He approached me, smiling, and he thanked me for helping to keep our school clean. He was watching me through his office window, and he stopped what he was doing just to come and thank me for picking up the piece of trash. He stressed to me that I was an integral part of our school community. For a moment, Mr. Eaddy made me feel like a honkin' big fish in a little pond.

Chris Hoffman, high school tennis coach - Coach Hoffman and I had a great relationship. He seemed to truly like me as a person. His opinion of me was very important in my eyes. During my final year of high school, there was a day on which seniors didn't have to report to school because the other students were undergoing some standardized testing. I decided that I would blow off tennis practice, too. It was my day off, right? I wanted to go to the lake with some friends.

The next day, we had a scheduled home match against a very tough opponent. I reported to the courts at the end of the school day in order to warm up and get a little bit of practice in. Coach Hoffman was already there, and he had a basket of tennis balls. He was practicing his serve, and he was slapping the hell out of those balls. He was obviously angry about something. He wouldn't look at me or acknowledge that I was there. He returned my greeting with an indifferent grunt. When I asked why he was so upset, he stopped what he was doing, and he glared at me. He pointed at me with his tennis racket and said sternly, "If we weren't playing South Iredell today, and if this team didn't need you so badly, your butt would be on the bench today. You blow off practice one more time, and I'll bench you anyway." He was angry at the poor example I had set, and rightfully so. I was a senior, the captain, and the number one seed. I should have been at that practice. The rest of the team was there, and my absence was glaring. I immediately "got" what he was saying, and I apologized to him and the rest of the team. After a few days, things between Coach and me were right again. I'll never forget how devastated I felt when I realized that he was disappointed in me. But I learned a little something about leadership and responsibility.

There are other teachers whom I've loved and have meant something to me. This list is not all-inclusive. But the teachers described above have shaped me as an adult. These are memories that I carry around with me everyday. I wish I knew where they were today so that I could find them and tell them.

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