The Power of a Teacher

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week.
In the midst of a pandemic.
Classrooms sit empty while teachers and students do their best to maintain virtual connections as the 2019-2020 school year comes to an end.

In honor of those students and teachers, I offer my words about the power of teachers and students in my life.

 

When I taught, this was my favorite time of the year. We celebrated progress, prepared for end-of-the-year festivities, and yes, looked forward to a summer break. My co-teacher, Christine, and I worked hard to build compassionate trust with our students, to create unity among all who entered our classroom–ourselves, our students, our therapists, our shadows/parapros, our students’ parents. Because our school was unique–a small, private, autism-inclusive model–our physical classroom was also unique. Most of our school’s classrooms and offices were housed in the educational wing of the church where we operated. Our classroom, however, was located in a little white house on the property. The atmosphere itself, though decorated in typical classroom fashion, was homey and familiar.

In October 2010, I began my brief teaching career as a student’s shadow in that classroom. I was already familiar with the student’s family and was excited to be in the classroom each day. The lead teacher, Christine, was out the first few days I was there, but when she returned, our rapport was immediate. We earned one another’s trust and shared similar educational philosophies. Before Christmas break, she began gently inquiring whether I was interested in being in the classroom full time, to which I answered,¬† “Yes, I would LOVE that!”

By the end of the school year, I’d been hired to replace the assistant teacher who had decided not to return the following year. I was ecstatic. For the next five years, I taught in the little white house on the hill. I also learned. From Christine, I learned to listen to our students–to their fears, their anxieties, their excitement, their abilities, their struggles. From the students, I learned to persevere, to be brave (I actually got quite a lecture about that from a certain 6-year-old the week before I flew to Texas for the first time), to look for the reasons behind behaviors.

I learned that my quiet presence was valuable. I didn’t need to be loud to be heard. I learned that patience, even in difficult circumstances, is rewarded.

Leaving that classroom, those students, that co-teacher was one of the most difficult choices I had to make when I realized Texas was beckoning me. I barely held it together those last few days of school in 2016 while editing pictures for the end-of-year slideshow. When Christine and I parted ways on the last day of school, just two weeks before I moved to Texas, I sobbed throughout my thirty-minute drive home.

The Little White House was one of my greatest teachers.

Teachers have always been important to me.

When I entered kindergarten in 1989, I immediately fell in love with my teacher, Mrs. G. I know that much. And when a new teacher appeared in her place on the third day of school, I was heartbroken and confused. It’s my first memory of loss. The picture of her face, her red skirt, her kind smile have been tucked away in my mind for 31 years, her unexplained disappearance an unsolved mystery to my younger self.

Her brief presence in my life made a lasting impact. That impression told me that my own presence in the classroom as a teacher mattered to my students. If three days carved a sense of belonging and loss so deep, an entire year or two (I taught in a blended-grade classroom and most of our students were with us for two years) with my students was a great privilege and responsibility. Would they remember me in 30 years the way I remembered my own teachers?

Last year, one of my former students moved to Texas. His mom texted and asked to meet for dinner because her son wanted to see me. I was thrilled to see him, this student who carved his way into my heart in the classroom. To know that he fondly remembered our time in the little white house as a kindergartener and first-grader.

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Moody was a gift to my heart not only during the year I spent in her classroom but also in the years after. She gave me a sense of security and was the first person outside my family to cultivate a sense of leadership in me. She trusted me and on the very rare occasions when she needed to redirect my behavior, I felt crushed by her disappointment.

The summer after first grade, I began writing letters to her, a practice that continued throughout my elementary school years. When her first daughter was born, my mom, sister, and I visited them. I remember sitting on her porch swing that day. Over the years, we gradually lost contact. Occasionally, as is the case in small towns, our paths crossed at the grocery store. The last time I remember seeing her was when I was in high school. Later, the elementary-aged kids at my church would tell me when they saw her at the store or school, and I would relay my well-wishes through them.

I should write her a letter, huh?

School was comforting to me. It provided  a safety net in which I could explore my love of learning, my propensity for words, in the company of my peers,  guided by teachers who cared deeply for their students.

When I was pulled out of school in third grade to be homeschooled, I felt a sense of loss though I didn’t realize it then. At the time, I was told (and overheard) explanations that this decision was the result of our persecution in the school system as Christians. As an adult, I realize that the reasons stemmed from religious superiority, conspiracy theories, and cult-like fundamental beliefs. And while that’s an important chunk of my schooling experience, it’s not a period I want to discuss now.

In college, I returned to the classroom, and fell in love with it all over again. The teachers who poured into my life were like water to my soul, especially the English department. I spent hours in White Hall, where their offices were located. Soaking up their wisdom, their encouragement, their tough love. Late afternoon conversations in the rocking chairs on the front porch were therapy for a heart that was desperately trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted.

Dr. Drummond
Dr. Sepko
Dr. Thompson
Dr. Collier

The Core Four.

They were the matriarchs I trusted to tell me the truth. They saw the good, the bad, the ugly, the celebratory. And when I dove deep into depression and regret, they were there to listen and grieve with me. I treasure them as friends even now.

These last few weeks, the teachers and students I know personally have been heavy on my mind and in my heart. The end-of-year celebrations they’re missing, the virtual graduations, the disconnection. I know it must be excruciatingly hard.

And it made me reminisce about all the teachers, students, and classrooms I’ve had in my life.

Which brings me back to kindergarten and those three days with Mrs. G.

I don’t know exactly why she made such an impression on me, but she did. I’ve felt it in my mind, body, and soul for three decades. The mystery of her has revisited me often enough that it makes me ponder why she mattered so much to five-year-old me. Thirty-five-year-old me is learning to pay attention to these things from my past. They reappear for a reason. The body remembers more than we give it credit for. Which is why, when I left my own classroom, I was adamant that my students and their parents be told I wasn’t returning the following year. I wanted my students to have closure rather than wandering where I disappeared to when they came back to school in August.

So last night, I found myself thinking of Mrs. G, her red skirt, her kind smile. With only a last name and a fuzzy memory to go on, I started searching Facebook. Eventually, I scrolled across a profile with the last name. Same school district. Approximate age range.

Could it be?

I took a deep breath. And messaged the stranger.

This morning, she responded. It was her. I couldn’t believe I’d found her all these years later.

Mrs. G.

No longer an unsolved mystery in the heart of my younger self.

Teachers, you are superheroes. You don’t need to wear capes to prove this. Your kind smiles and red skirts are enough to make long-lasting impressions in the heart of a child.

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