My sister retired this year after decades of teaching at a Catholic elementary school.
Milestones like this one always get me thinking. Combine that with the fact that two of my other sisters are teachers, and you have teachers on my brain.
There is a thought in Paulo Coelho’s best-selling book, “The Alchemist:” “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.”
Which got me to thinking of all the teachers I had through the years who conspired with the universe to get me here. To published writer status. To bylined status. To “it would be so much easier to give up this dream but I’m not done with it yet—or it’s not done with me yet” status.
Maybe you were the kid whose single mom could not afford eyeglasses for you. And the teacher everyone thought was older than God, the one with the attitude and the crotchety stare, turned out to be your angel. Took you for the exam and paid for the glasses. This happened at my son’s school years ago, to a classmate of his. I would have been none the wiser had I not been volunteering in the hallway and heard this teacher’s kind offer. So much for crotchety.
Maybe you were the high school athlete that couldn’t do anything right in your father’s eyes .And then your burly bear of a physics teacher/coach made you see that your grasp of kinetic energy and covalent bonds made you a contender for college. And for a life in which you played a starring role for once, able to make your father’s lack of faith in you a distant memory.
I was the smart, nervous kid in first grade who fluttered like a butterfly because all those kids and rules and noise just made my nervous system explode each day. Mrs. Downs wisely put me in charge of the lower reading groups. I coached my peers on how to sound out words, sitting in her chair, during reading time. I still bless that woman. To focus on someone else’s distress took me out of my own.
I think of Mrs. Corrigan, whose Snoopy trophy for best third-grade class multiplier was the Holy Grail in our basement classroom for months. The girl who had little interest in or talent for math was able to bring that trophy proudly home on several occasions. And it got a place of honor on our dining room hutch for the week. Mrs. Corrigan knew how to get the best out of us. She talked that thing up like it was solid gold and we bought it hook, line and sinker.
Mrs. Haffner, in my junior high years, fanned the flames to kickstart me as a writer. It was unheard of to be required to do “creative” writing exercises in my Catholic school but Mrs. H made it happen. I am not sure I have had as much fun in a writing course since. It almost made up for the hundreds of hours we were required to stand at the board and diagram sentences. Almost. I could be creative, but she would be damned if I was going to be grammatically incorrect while doing so.
Then there was my eighth grade math teacher, who tried everything he could to bring out the math whiz in me during eighth grade. He stopped at nothing, shamelessly seating me next to our resident Boy Genius, Mark Stahl. I think he thought if the math didn’t take, perhaps a budding romance would. Alas, both ploys failed. Let’s just say no Snoopy trophy in the world could have helped me master story problems. And I’ve since learned my taste in men has not historically been discriminating enough to choose boy geniuses. Too bad a course does not exist to improve that skill.
Flash forward to high school. Sister Helen Jean who let me find my humorous voice in the written word, while introducing me to writers like Ibsen. Mrs. McGary, who scared us all with her severe navy blue suits and large spectacles—but who made sure I grasped Shakespeare and Beowulf like nobody’s business. And showed me I had a flair for the comical.
Most of these teachers earned a pittance. Catholic school pay has never been great. And yet, these lovely souls conspired to fan the flames—to grow a talent, fuel an interest, foster a dream. I’m just one. There had to be others. Multiply little ‘ole me by hundreds, possibly thousands.
Oddly enough, it is not my college professors or mentors later in life that come to mind when I think of people to thank. It is the ones who saw a nervous stick of a girl, all bones and paleness, and looked beyond to what she was not showing them. Who saw me reading books beyond my years, devouring them, in every free class moment. And, instead of chiding me for it, fanned that flame.
I wish my children, and yours, the same. People for whom money takes a backseat to a calling. Their calling.
We should all be so lucky.
And I hope someday that I live to see them compensated better than we compensate men who throw tiny balls around a court or a field. Not all of them. Not the ones in it for summers off. They’d be better off as plumbers or secretaries.
But the ones who have a flair for helping us parents grow little people with big dreams? Oh, yes. For them, I think we would all up our taxes.