This weekend I saw an obituary notice for Ernestine M. Tulumello, fondly regarded by fourth graders at Stall Brook Elementary School as Mrs. T. As decades worth of her students reminisced and remembered her on Facebook, I was reminded of the many reasons why, as a teacher, she was so loved.
We’ve all had teachers that stood out to us, teachers that rooted around in our pliable minds until they found a foothold they could work with. Teachers who reached down and grabbed hold of those still growing souls in some way, big or small. As a parent, I wait each year to see if my own child’s teacher will be the one, that teacher–the one who inspires a love of books or instills a lifelong respect for learning. The one who fans the flames of an inquiring mind or merely passes along the tools to dig deeper.
The one who passes out Jolly Ranchers and weaves wonder with her voice on a Friday afternoon.
My boys have both had teachers who for me would have been one of those teachers. Whether or not my boys will view them as such remains to be seen. Often you don’t realize how much someone has taught you until you are further down the line. Like when you’re in your forties and writing a blog, for instance.
I was fortunate to have a string of teachers in grade school who touched me greatly. For some, it was obvious at the time. For other teachers, the respect was hard-fought, hard-won and came later when all those lessons, which seemed so hard at the time, started to make sense. So a moment to say thank you.
To kind Mrs. Vacca in third grade for discretely overlooking my sneakiness when playing Around the World; for remembering that I shared my Doritos with her; for setting the times tables to music. To cool Mrs. T. in fourth, for playing Pink Floyd during class; for hiding Snickers bars in your drawer; for teaching me how to turn a remainder into a fraction. To strict Mrs. Mohan in fifth, for having the most beautiful reading voice I’ve ever heard; for A Wrinkle in Time; for encouraging me to dream beyond my fifth grade aspirations.
Thank you. You all touched me in ways that thirty-five years later I can still put my finger on, can still remember, can still write about.
To frizzy haired Mrs. Kilburn, for thinking outside of the Dickens box and including women writers and short story authors on your syllabus. To demanding Mr. Thuot, for insisting upon the importance (and art) of public speaking by asking me to speak for three minutes, without notes, about a subject I pulled from a hat. (Snow, of all things). To intimidating Mrs. Concannon, for strictly enforcing the rules of drafts and final copies, for being a stickler for grammar and punctuation. None of you could have known how and why these things would shape my life later on, but you did them anyway and I am grateful.
Thank you, Mr. Christie, who somehow, against all odds, made the dissection of a fetal pig something to look forward to. Thank you, Mrs. Beck for making trigonometry funny, and Ms. Senecal for being the first teacher who was also a friend.
When a teacher loves to teach, it shows. It shines through in their lesson plans, in their classroom, in the way they greet their students every morning. Oh, teachers are human beings. They have good days and bad days, just like the rest of us. They make mistakes. They are not at their best 100% of time; who among us is? They have students they clash with, parents they don’t like, hangovers, illnesses, and their own children’s teachers to contend with.
But those teachers? Those teachers have a magical ability to pull a child out of himself. To take a boy who doesn’t like reading and turn him into a reader. To take a girl who doesn’t believe in herself and show her what a super hero she can be. Those teachers can make a boy feel like he’s conquered the world when he solves his first algebraic equation or a girl feel like anything is possible when she’s encouraged to take part in the science fair. Those teachers don’t just teach, they perform a little bit of magic every day when they stand in front of their students, like pulling a rabbit from a hat.
Not every student is going to have the same experience with every teacher. For every teacher that rocked my world as a young girl, there were probably five or six others who hardly remember him or her. For every teacher whose class I doodled my way through, for every teacher who stood there for forty-five minutes while I blinked away yawns, there were other young students who were sitting up straight, paying attention, discovering something about themselves or the world.
Not every teacher is going to be that teacher for every kid. And not every kid is going to have that teacher every year. If they did, those teachers wouldn’t stand out as much. You wouldn’t be a forty-four year-old woman still remembering and writing and using their names in your novel…
It only takes one to make a difference. So to those teachers, thank you. Thank you. To the teachers who have taught my sons, and to the ones who will in the future, thank you. Some among you will be that teacher. The one they come home and talk about, the one they look back fondly on years later. It may not be the one I would have picked, it may not be for any reason that I can understand or predict. But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there was that little bit of magic involved. The kind of magic that turns any teacher into that teacher.