Ruth, 23 Second grade teacher at Franklin Park School
“To teach is to touch a life forever.” These were the words painted on a cup a former student and her twin sister gave me when they took me to lunch last fall. Since it had been more than 40 years since the twins were in my seventh grade class, I felt the words meant something to them.
I graduated from Eastern Illinois University at Charleston, Illinois, in 1949 with a major in English. It was a time when the veterans of WWII were looking for teacher’s jobs. I was lucky to find any work, especially near enough Evanston and Northwestern University where my husband was completing his education in journalism. I was an instant teacher of second grade, and could have taught Shakespeare, but I didn’t know much about teaching reading. A teacher across the hall showed me how to print so second graders could read it.
By the second semester, I found that I was going to have a baby which was not in my plans. But Mother Nature prevailed and about ten o’clock each morning I had to rush to the bathroom across the hall and throw up. It was also at that time I started wearing a loose smock over my street clothes to keep the chalk dust an other school room hazards at bay. I thought I was being very secretive and clever wearing the smock, but one observant little girl said to me very quietly, “Mrs. Thomas, if you’ll tell my mother what size, she will make your baby some booties. Yes, I did get the promised booties. And, I did get through the year. Two months later I had an eight pound boy I named Michael.
I decided my experiences as a new teacher would make an interesting blog, especially after I received a wonderful and surprising email message this week. It was from a former student from the 1952-53 school year. I was an inexperienced high school teacher of 25 when this young man was in my English class. It was my first year of teaching in high school. I taught English 1,3 and 4 as well as Spanish 1 and 2. That meant five different preparations each day. I was also responsible for producing the school year book. I was afraid I had gotten over my head in responsibilities. I also drove 27 miles to and from school each day and had a young baby at home. I worked very hard, but I didn’t feel I had left any lasting impressions on my students.
You can understand why I was thrilled to hear in an email message from North Carolina University where he had been a history teacher 48 years that I was his favorite high school teacher. This is a long time to remember any teacher, and I was mighty proud.
Not all memories of former students are happy. Especially when I read in the newspaper that a father had shot his wife and daughter before shooting himself. This girl was appropriately named Kandy. She was a sweet special needs girl when I had her in sixth grade. In our school we had special education through fifth grade, but after that, they were transferred to regular sixth grade. Although I didn’t have any special education to teach that level, I learned by doing. I never found out why this father felt his special daughter and her mother would not be able to get along without him, but she was a very happy girl in my class. Her mother had told me in a letter that I had helped her daughter through a difficult transition period; that I had been a psychiatrist, nurse, mother and last a teacher. Notes like that mean more than anyone but only a teacher could understand.
I also remember a little Mexican boy named Tommy whose father was a dishwasher in a restaurant. At Christmas time he brought me a sprig off a tree he found on the way to school. I put it in a glass of water and gave it a prominent place on my desk along with some brightly wrapped gifts from other students. Years later, Tommy married and had children. One day he showed up at my home with his little girls and a big basket of flowers. He told me he wanted his girls to meet his teacher. I commented that he had many other teachers along the way. Why did he say that as though I had been his only teacher. His reply was, “But you were the only one that cared about me.”
A few years later I invited Tommy to speak to my high school class about his success in life, and he did a good job. Finally I told my class that he had been in my sixth grade, and they were most impressed with his words. Tommy took me to lunch after class, and he proudly led me to his new Cadillac and politely opened the door for me.
There was a pretty girl in my sophomore English class that liked to write poetry when it came to “journal writing time.” I don’t remember that it was especially good, but it gave her a lot of pleasure. She was not a well liked girl for reasons I never discovered. I gave her a little book to record her favorite poetry in, and she always had it with her. In a last note to me she wrote. “Thanks, again for being you and letting me be myself.”
I have lots of notes and pictures of special students, but it had never occurred to me to tell anyone about them until now. There have been times in my 22-year-teaching career that I have needed happy memories to get through difficult days. During the years I have taught nearly all grades from second to high school. I spent the last ten years teaching English at Scottsdale High School. Then I took early retirement and started writing books for young readers. If you were to ask me which level I liked the best, I’d probably say the one I was currently teaching.
If a special teacher in your life is still alive, surprise her with a thank you note. It will mean the world to her.