THE Teacher

Some Phoenix students returned to school this week, and within the next two weeks the majority of children will be back in their classrooms. In January, fifty-one (51) years ago, I walked into my first classroom as a student teacher in 8th grade English. Needless to say, I thought I had been sentenced to death. Junior High School? Hormone-laden barely teens?

I was so depressed by this assignment; I wanted to teach 11th grade American Lit. It was my forte; I belonged there. I could hardly hide my abject indifference when I met my supervising teacher. She looked ok–coal black hair, flashy red lipstick. She dressed ok, but she’d never be great because she was my Junior High warden. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old building, my dread grew with each step. I knew I’d never survive 5 months of this madness.

When I entered the classroom, Mrs. E was seated at her desk poring over papers. “You can take a seat at the back. I’ll introduce you to each class and when I monitor sixth period study hall.” Study hall? Damn. I remember junior high study hall–nothing but chaos. Even though it was January, I felt perspiration run down my arm pits. And for three days, I sat at the back and observed. By the third day, I admit I was awed. Not only was she engaging and humorous, her kids adored her. Me? I was in love with her handwriting; it as bold, emphatic, and filled with flourish. Curiously, I found myself attempting to emulate it among my doodle observation notes. Then on Wednesday afternoon she said, “That’s it Sue.” What did that mean? “You take over tomorrow.” Whoa. Wait a minute; I’m very content to sit in the back.

“Oh, Mrs. E, I’m not ready to take over classes, let alone monitor study hall.”

“Call me, Donna. Get ready. Tomorrow you’re in charge.”

“But you’ll be in the room, right? Particularly if I blow it.”

“Perhaps.” Perhaps? What the hell does that mean?

And on Thursday my 50-year career in public education began, as did my relationship with my mentor, Donna. She believed in me, even when she dropped in on my study hall and saw I had the superintendent’s son standing in the corner. (In my defense, I didn’t know who the clown was.) She encouraged me when I told her I had no intention of making teaching my career; I had bigger plans. “Sorority girls are college girls; you’re not going to be one forever. You must teach; you have the gift.”

My biggest takeaway from Donna was her notion of the “elusive” gift of teaching. As a graduate professor, I would engage my classes in interesting philosophical discussions about the gift. “I can walk down the hallways of any school and tell which teachers have the gift. They ignite passion, fire, and curiosity. They challenge, not disparage. They encourage and even cajole. They inspire.” A flurry of yes, buts would erupt. Test scores? Number of failures? Attendance rates? Office referrals? Their “buts” were endless.

Five decades later, Donna and I are still friends. Whatever happened to me during my short stint with her left an indelible impression on me. Though long retired, she still has the passion for public education, and she routinely reminds me to continue my advocacy for children. (I don’t need reminded, Donna.) In fact, my only wish is I mastered her unforgettable style of handwriting!

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