Wednesday, August 29, 2007

To Sir, with Love: A Hump Day Hmm-er

I started school two months before my fifth birtday. In California in 1969, the cut off date for school entry was the first week of December. I cleared it by two weeks. I loved kindergarten. I was excited to learn how to read. For some time it had been the joy of my family to hear this constant refrain while driving:

What does that say?

What does that say?

What does that say?

I remember coming home from school one day and telling my mom that I knew how to spell our last name! I proceeded to tell her M - U - R - P - H - Y. I was embarassed to find that my teacher hadn't taught me the correct spelling. (Can you imagine a kindergartener in this day and age not being taught how to spell her own name? It is a different time with different expectations, both at school and at home, isn't it?) My mother corrected me: M - U - R - P - H - E - Y. The name spelling would be an issue almost everywhere I went until I got married and took my husband's equally Irish but more straightforwardly spelled last name. I don't have a lot of clear memories of kindergarten, but other than that minor disappointment, I think it was pretty smooth sailing.

Somewhere along the line, things began to change.

I don't remember when it started exactly but sometime I began to realize that I wasn't well liked by my fellow students. I was awkward. I usually wore hand me down clothes that had very little in common with the current fashion trends. I became aware that how things were at home for me wasn't the same as the other kids. I was raised in a single parent household when that wasn't quite as common as it is today. We often had spare relatives living with us. I learned to brush my teeth when the school did a section on dental hygiene. (I cringe when I write that but it is the truth.)

I never had "my group" of friends. I didn't necessarily hang out alone but I didn't belong anywhere. On a good day, I hung out on the fringes of the "regular" kids. On a bad day, I stood mute in answer to the question, "Do you like wearing that dress?"

I write all this so that you can understand my perception of my self and my life in elementary school. I write all this so that you can understand the impact of the teachers in my life during fourth and fifth grade.

The best--B-E-S-T--teacher in the school was Mr. F. This designation was transmitted subconsciously through the children's hive mind. We just knew. Imagine my delight when I walked up to the school, alone (Again, how times have changed.) and saw my name on Mr. F's class list.

I can tell you that I was not disappointed.

Mr. F team taught with Mrs. V. They had a huge double classroom with a folding dividing door that was very rarely closed. I really had two teachers that year. Two wonderful teachers who were positive and who helped me get excited about learning and who were very patient and gracious to me when they had to point out or correct my deficiencies. My penmanship was atrocious and I was sent that year to the learning center. (Atrocious writing skills are apparently genetically transmitted and both my children are afflicted.)

Mr. F walked over to my desk one day. He crouched down next to me and started talking to me about my writing. While I obviously don't recall the exact words, they went something like this:

Mary, I want you to go to the learning center to work on your writing.
Everyone needs help sometimes and I think this will help you so that it is easier to read what you write.
What didn't get said but what I understood:

I know this is hard for you. There is nothing wrong with you. You're
a special girl and getting sent to the learning center doesn't mean you are bad.
The year came to a close and I spent the summer of 1970 doing whatever latch-key kids do: watching TV, reading, roaming the streets, walking to the liquor store to buy candy and soda.

The summer ended and I walked up to the school to see whose class I would be spending my time in for fifth grade. There it was. I had Mr. F again! He was teaching a fourth/fifth combo and I was one of twelve fifth graders who would be in his class. Ecstatic is probably not too strong a word for my nine year old feelings.

As fifth graders in a class and a half of fourth graders, if you included Mrs. V's class, we had the chance to lead small groups and learn more independence. For math we were shipped out to the other fifth grade teachers according to ability level. All through the year, we also had the distinction of being Mr. F's fifth graders. This honor was all the more wonderful when he told us that he had picked each of us to be in his class. Wow! To a kid who felt less than special, this had a huge impact on me. More so because I didn't have a dad in the house growing up. Positive male attention? Well, I lapped that up.**

Somewhere in that two years in Mr. F's class, I also had the joy of two student teachers--identical twins. H and R were so much fun. They were bright, enthusiastic, pretty and young. We were all in awe of them. While I can't say that I had any special connection to them as a student, just having student teachers, and such unique ones, made that time in school seem more special.

As others today join Julie in pondering school for this week's Hump Day Hmm-er, I reminisce about those two most special years of elementary school. I also think about Colin and his special year of elementary school, third grade. His teacher, Miss B., was a hybrid of Mr. Rogers and Mother Theresa and I am not exaggerating. I think about Marley and her experience so far. She has had the same two wonderful teachers since kindergarten. This year, a third has been added to share a part-time contract with one of the others. A graduate of this same multiage program, Miss J. is thrilled to be teaching in the class she grew up in. I know Marley is going to love her, too.

What an impact a teacher can make in the life of a child. For some, like me, the impact came in the positive attention and in the communicating that I was smart and likeable. For Colin, it came with a teacher who saw past his impulsive behaviour and never lost her patience with him. Never. He still looks back, at 15, and remembers that. The impact of Marley's teachers is yet to be fully known but I suspect being known and understood and challenged in a safe environment by three superb women is going to have a long-term affect on how she sees school and learning.

Education today is not all that we would want it to be. Challenges face administrators, teachers, parents and children. Everyone has an opinion and it seems like there is no consensus. But...


We should never underestimate how large the impact of a warm and loving demeanor, loving boundaries and even a consistent smile in the classroom can have our kids. I know the affect it had on me. Thanks Mr. F, Mrs. V., H & R. You made a difference.

Hump Day Hmm

**My experience with a male elementary school teacher was such that I a saddened by the lack of them today. They were more common in the late 60s and early 70s. I think there are more kids like me who could use that influence.


daisies said...

thanks for sharing all this ~ i am amazed at some of the similar experiences we have had along the way ~ similar but different :)

we absolutely should never underestimate the impact of a good teacher with a large heart ~ life changing they are :)

**i wonder if it is the same everywhere because my son had more male elementary teachers than female ~ i agree that there are more kids today that could use that influence :)

Snoskred said...

So many men are just plain terrified of being around kids all day. Not because they don't like kids, but because they do not want to be accused of liking them *too* much. That is one reason so many men are staying away from teaching these days, especially in the lower levels of school. High school isn't quite as bad.

Life could have been entirely different for me because the teacher I was going to have in grade 5 was this kind of teacher you have spoken about here.


Poppy Fields said...

Great post.
I'm excited because my nine year old is going to have a male fourth grade teacher. He has a super reputation, all the kids want to be in his class.

Bon said...

Mary-Lue, i too was a kid from a single-parent household who just loved my male grade 6 teacher, Mr. N. he made me feel special, and smart, and interesting...the first grown man in my life to do so. and you're right, now that there are many more kids growing up in female-headed households, there are even fewer male teachers at the elementary level to offer that taste of positive male role model. it's a shame. i understand why, and the reasons are complex, but it's still a loss for a lot of kids.

great post.

Sheila said...

This is a great post, Mary!

Julie Pippert said...

Oh wow, what an awesome---and fortunate---experience.

I heartily agree that we shouldn't underestimate the effect of a great teacher like that.

(And the flip side of that coin too...)

I did have a few great teachers. Too many bad ones, and the male ones were mainly junior high coaches who were dreadful.

But in 7th grade there was the Magnificent Mr. Harrison. What a marvelous teacher and person.

Ravin' Picture Maven

Emily said...

What a wonderful post. An elementary school teacher changed my life, too. Mrs. Stein.

EnnuiHerself said...

Great post!

Like many of your other readers, I recognize myself in parts of your post. I was totally the shy kid who never *quite* fit in with the others. I was fortunate in that I wasn't teased very much but for the most part I existed on the fringe of the social groups.

I had a wonderful 6th grade teacher who helped me get to where I am today. (Thanks Mrs. Toler!)

I had to chuckle to myself when you mentioned that you were a latch-key kid - that's not a term that you hear too often these days.

mcewen said...

Thank you for sharing that. There was a time where teachers were revered and rightly so. Their dedication to their vocation is not often appreciated.
Best wishes

Lindsey said...

I agree!! Kiddos need more male teachers...especially those that have a lack of male role models in their home lives. Teachers have so much influence over children...glad you had a couple wonderful years with loving teachers!

Mel said...

What a shining example of the power of one person in the life of a child.

Bless those teachers.
We need more JUST like them!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. When I think of some of my favorite teachers, one of the ones who comes to mind was actually not a school teacher but my piano teacher. She really taught me not just to play it, but to *love* it. Sigh. I love good instructors.

And incidentally, my uncle is a kindergarten teacher. He loves it, and he's great at it.

V-Grrrl said...

Lovely post. It brought those years back to me. At my children's elementary school here, about a third of the teachers are men.

kim said...

The memory of great teachers stays with you forever. And as a parent you are forever grateful when one inspires your child. Yours was a great story.

ewe are here said...

This is a wonderful post.

And you're right about the lack of male teachers these days. I wish there were more, especially now that I have two wee boys.