This week is Teacher Appreciation Week at my daughters’ school and it has me looking back. Looking back to two very different classrooms, with two very different teachers, at two very different times in my life.
The year was 1987. Life was all Michael Jackson, BMX bikes, and playing in the dirt. Carefree, fun, and a little bit messy. Everything a kid could want. Until I entered my fourth grade classroom.
That year I happened to be in a third/fourth grade combo class. In my memory, our class was extra big and I was extra lost. I sat directly in the middle of the class, floundering, all in immediate view of my teacher who seemed to watch my every flail.
School was a constant source of anxiety for me, particularly in the early grades, as I struggled a great deal with math and reading. I had changed schools three times in the first three years of school and never seemed to be able to find my footing in the classroom. Thankfully, I had been blessed with kind, patient, lovely teachers in second and third grade and was beginning to gain confidence. Until I entered my fourth grade classroom.
My teacher seemed to take an almost immediate disliking to me, or so it seemed to my nine year-old self. He would publicly ridicule my reading. Put me on the spot. Highlight my every struggle. The effect he had on my confidence and reading was devastating and far-reaching. To this day, I do not enjoy reading out loud (unless it is to my children who love my reading despite it’s stutters and pauses). This teacher confirmed my worst fears that I should be embarrassed of my abilities, or lack thereof. And I was. Deeply so.
In the years after fourth grade, it became easier and easier to simply quit trying. My fixed mind set was rooted and well-established. I became an expert evader. As reading aloud in the younger classrooms began to be replaced with book reports and reading logs in the older ones, I became an expert faker. It became a challenge I would give myself: how little of the book could I read and still get an acceptable grade.
It was surprisingly easy. Until I walked into my Senior World Literature class.
Something came over me my senior year of high school and I decided to take two literature classes, World Literature and African Literature. A shocking decision for this proud non-reader. I have no recollection of what led to that decision, but what I do recall was encountering a teacher that would change the course of my education, and (in a totally non-cliche way) my life.
Mary Beth Wallestad-Oyebade was the embodiment of what it means to be a teacher. She was challenging, encouraging, patient, determined, and excited. She immediately saw through my defensive, self-preserving tactics and gently proved to me that I did not need them. She piqued my interest with books I never would have thought of reading. Then demanded (in the best way) that they actually be read. She was patient with my shallow misunderstanding of Jane Austen and taught me how to look deeper. She was encouraging in my writing and taught me how to write clearer. And, most importantly, she was honest and real with us and taught me how to be as well.
Ms. Wallestad never let me off the hook. She never let me settle. She pushed me, always gently. She planted in me an appreciation for the art of a clever turn of phrase. She gave me a love of the written word and showed me I had every right to that love as anyone else. What had once been a closed off world to me became open, compelling, and accessible.
It would still take several years for the skeptical, reluctant reader mind set to ebb, but with each book I read, either by choice or for college, my confidence and interest grew. By the time it came to my Children’s Literature class in college, I had found my way. All thanks for a teacher who saw something different than everyone else.
In college, when I was struggling with the realization that being a nurse might not be what I actually want to do with my life, it was Ms. Wallestad’s ability as a teacher that sparked my turn towards education.
Now as I watch my children, under the care of their teachers, I am, once again, profoundly grateful. They have teachers who are inspiring them, challenging them, and giving them the tools for a life-long love of learning.
And so, to you teachers who have given us so much, we thank you. You deserve more than a day, or even week, of appreciation. But even when we are not saying it directly, your influence is long lasting and significant.