Other Voices: Teachers from days gone by leave lasting impression
Occasionally I have a nightmare in which I am in a classroom full of children I am supposed to teach, but I have not the least idea how to do it.
The children look at me expectantly until it dawns on them that I am a fraud. They immediately turn into shrieking, taunting imps who dismantle the room. I cannot regain control. I am certain the principal is lurking in the corridor and will soon charge through the door, loudly berating me for my incompetence.
I am terrified of both the children and the principal. This is the moment at which my pounding heart awakens me. I fervently thank heaven for my return to reality.
When I mentioned this dream to a friend of mine who is a retired teacher, she smiled ruefully. “I experienced almost that situation in real life. After my first day in a classroom, I was so demoralized I went home and flung myself on my bed sobbing, ‘I just can’t do this! I don’t know how!”
Nevertheless, she did summon the courage to go on, perhaps because she had no other choice. She continued to teach for 30 years. As she described her career to me, it was evident she remembered the years with joy. Her eyes sparkled when she talked about some of her long ago pupils – the bright, the hungry, the dreamy, and the ornery ones and the little fellow who was so shy she had to hold his hand to make him feel secure enough to learn anything.
My late sister-in-law also enjoyed a long and outstanding career as an elementary school teacher. Because of her teaching skills, parents clamored to have their children placed in her fifth-grade class, and of course, like most strong teachers, she was often given many of the difficult children, the disruptive ones from the lower grades, whose sinister reputations preceded them.
“What on Earth do you do?” I once asked when I knew she was starting the school year with a particularly challenging class. “Do you smile a lot and try to make friends with the tough ones?”
“Good heavens, no! I don’t smile at all. It’s not up to me to please my students – it’s up to them to please me by doing what they’re in school to do.
“The first thing I impress on my students is that school is their job. There are standards they must meet. They have a responsibility to get their work done and treat others respectfully. When they begin to meet those expectations, that is when I begin to smile. With the class I have this year, I probably won’t smile until sometime in November.”
One of her classes, 20 years after they had passed through her classroom, organized a reunion to thank her for the contribution she had made to their lives.
As I think back eight decades to my own school days, I feel a certain pride in being able to name every one of my grade school teachers. However, if one considers that a child spends approximately six hours of every weekday under a teacher’s supervision, it stands to reason that teachers should be as firmly planted in one’s memory as family members are. Even now, the shadow of my sixth-grade teacher, austere Miss Hingston, falls over me if I merely toy with the idea of dodging some commitment.
Along with rigorous academic preparation for junior high school, she also included character building. In order to strengthen our moral fiber, she insisted we memorize noble phrases from Shakespeare: “Who steals my purse steals trash, but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which ne’er enriches him but leaves me poor indeed.” And “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, yet has a jewel in the middle of his forehead.”
There were maxims, too: “Words unspoken sometimes fall back dead, but God himself cannot kill them when they’re said.”
And admonitions: “Lost yesterday, two golden hours, each set with 60 diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are lost and gone forever.”
My long-ago teachers have been dead for many years, but unlike Gen. MacArthur’s old soldiers, they have not faded away. They enjoy a certain kind of immortality in my mind. I am grateful they were brave enough to teach.
Lucille Lovestedt lives in Grass Valley.
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