“Good teachers help you believe in yourself, rather than cultivate a belief in them. They teach you to connect to the divinity within you.”
My first-grade teacher, Miss Kluba was a stout lady with a pixie haircut. Her determined brows and heavy walk terrified me. Kindergarten had already been a nightmare with a teacher who only liked the tiny, cute students that giggled at her lame jokes. I had been infuriated with my mother for sending me to such a boring place. The only thing I had liked about that year were the great oak trees dropping acorns on the playground at recess.
Miss Kluba liked all different kinds of children — especially creative ones. She promised that if we wrote stories at home and brought them to her, she would turn them into real books. I hadn’t known that real people could make books. I walked home with my best friend Monique as quickly as I could and raced to my bedroom to write my story about a kitten who liked showers and drinking tea in fancy cups (obviously influenced by the GOLDEN BOOKS I’d read).
Weeks went by and my story hadn’t been “published.” I was deeply disappointed in Miss Kluba until one day she pulled a “book” from her huge bag bursting with papers. The pages were held together by gold pins and the cover was a soft pink. The kitty of my imagination was on the cover in a polka dot dress with frills sitting to tea! My heart leapt as I scanned the pages reading my words and taking in the hand drawn and colored minor masterpieces of illustration — even the kitty singing in the shower! I don’t remember thanking Miss Kluba, but I’m sure the look on my face would have been enough.
“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.”
― Robert Frost
Miss Sittig was my fourth-grade teacher who liked Snoopy and especially The Great Pumpkin. America was celebrating its bicentennial back when it was still the norm to think our history was pretty awesome. Miss Sittig led us in patriotic songs and had patience enough to oversee an entire classroom of clumsy kids as they made bayberry scented dipped candles to sell at the Spirit of 1776 school fair. I was so tempted to steal my candles. I loved the very idea that this little thing was something my ancestors had done to light their homes. The scent to this day takes me back in time. I became obsessed with the many colonial structures in our town and also the Indian burial ground. I did not know back then that one of my ancestors had been killed by a bunch of Indians only a mile away. I did not get from Miss Sittig that the colonists or the Indians were any better than each other. War was the way of the world and that was all. Just like today.
“The Master said, “A true teacher is one who, keeping the past alive, is also able to understand the present.”
Mrs. Chiarella loved Hemingway. She’d done her work as a graduate student on him and let me see her folder of notes once she discovered that I loved the NICK ADAMS stories he wrote. She introduced me to war poetry. I remember reading Walt Whitman’s DRUM TAPS about the Civil War and feeling a weird sense of destiny upon discovering them. Mrs. Chiarella was the first teacher ever to embrace and promote my opinionated personality. She led the campaign to have me voted editor-in-chief of the newspaper. The other students were happy to offload the responsibility. I became fully myself in her classroom and felt unconditionally loved by her. She actually set me up with her son a few years later, but I was too stupid to appreciate a smart and good man at the time. She told me I should write. It took me a long time to listen to her.
“The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life. I wanted to follow Mr. Monte around for the rest of my life, learning everything he wished to share of impart, but I didn’t know how to ask.”
― Pat Conroy, My Losing Season: A Memoir
Before she died, I ran into her at church. I was visiting home and there she was a few pews ahead of me. I almost didn’t say hello because I was afraid it would be awkward, but then I did. Her face lit up with memories of me and my two friends. She had taken the three of us under her wing, and we’d laughed so many times together. I was able to tell her that I’d just finished the first draft of a novel because of her. It was a lovely moment.
A few other honorable mentions come to mind. I remember their faces but not all of their names. The Spanish teacher who taught us to make mosaics, the college professor of war history who encouraged me with very kind words on my papers and lists of movie and book recommendations, and the English teacher who said I was great at playing Blanche in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
“The expression ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ is a curious one, because if you look at the world , you’ll see that teachers aren’t particularly worse at doing things than anyone else, so perhaps the expression might be better worded as ‘nobody can do anything”
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
Not all teachers are in it for the right reasons. Not all of them can connect and inspire the way the ones with a calling can. The best teachers are the ones who could have done a million different interesting things, but still choose to teach. They have an inherent integrity about them that students eat up.
Anyway, I’d love to start a thread here in the comments celebrating the teachers who have made a difference in your life!