The Teacher who Inspired Me to Teach
All Over Again
That Friday morning in January was the last day of a difficult semester. I was recovering from pneumonia and overwhelmed by the backlog in grading that had developed while I was out. My lessons weren't "working" as they had in the past. My students seemed uncooperative. I had ordered some inspirational posters to brighten the room; they never arrived.
Outside, it was still dark. Slush-covered schoolbuses deposited sleepy students onto the unshovelled snow and ice of the sidewalk. The mercury vapor lights cast an alien orange glow over the scene. Like every other day that week, that day was slated to be heavily overcast. The cloudy skies would have darkened again by the time I left late that afternoon. "Another gray day," I thought as I turned from the window.
The weather's grayness seemed to fill me. Lately I had to drag myself out of bed when the alarm rang. After twenty years of teaching high school English, I had seen the same problems, fought the same battles, and taught the same concepts too many times. This semester the fire had gone out.
I often thought back to two of the women who had inspired me to become a teacher. Miss Jackson, my eighth grade English teacher, had made English so much fun that we didn't notice how much we were learning. That was the year I finally understood participles, gerunds, and infinitives, though.
I still had my thick folder of compositions from her class, too. Occasionally I looked through it, now with a professional eye, and was amazed at what she had coaxed from adolescents. Had I really written a research paper when I was 14? At my present school, only gifted and talented students wrote research papers before tenth grade.
Young and full of enthusiasm, "Miss J" had started a junior-high journalism club and newspaper. So many kids wanted to join that she made us apply, but I don't know of anyone who was turned down. She seemed to have time and attention for everyone. Her decision to resign at the end of the year had left some of us in tears.
"Did Miss J ever have gray days?" I wondered as I sorted through the attendance sheets on my desk. I couldn't remember any.
Mrs. Wright was my Composition teacher the fall of my senior year. She had no patience with sloppy writing; essays had to meet high standards. She made us keep writing journals, a task we all considered very time-consuming. At the time I did not appreciate the discipline required of a writer. I just knew that her approval of my writing meant everything, and her criticism prompted immediate revision. My writing improved because of her.
In British Lit and World Lit the next semester, Mrs. Wright taught us about the universal questions at the heart of our textbook selections. I could still hear her bubbly voice and see her tuck back a wisp of graying hair as we went over a poem by Burns or Blake or Keats. She loved literature, and she passed her enthusiasm along as she made it come alive for me.
Mrs. Wright also tutored a friend and me for the Advanced Placement test in English, explaining that we could skip the freshman English classes in college if we scored well. We met with her during study hall once a week. At the time, I did not appreciate the sacrifice of her prep time for us. I was flattered that she thought I could do well, and I worked hard to live up to her opinion.
When I had decided to become a teacher, I wanted to combine fun with my love for language and literature, to be just as good as Miss J and Mrs. Wright. But on that bleak Friday in January, all I wanted was to get through the day.
I looked up when Mindy walked in. Five or six years earlier she had been a student in my College Lit class. She had red hair, a creamy complexion, and a winning way that made her a delight in class. More important, she had often impressed me with her insights into Shakespeare, Joyce, and Frost.
She went to college to be an elementary teacher, and I had heard she had changed her major to English. Now "Mrs. Linton," she had been teaching journalism on a temporary contract just down the hall.
Mindy had had her hands full. The semester had begun without a journalism teacher, and the class, mostly seniors, had grown headstrong. Two previous substitutes had cited discipline problems when they quit. Slowly, though, Mindy had won the students' respect as they produced newspapers and worked on the yearbook. She and I had the same lunch period and chatted when her deadlines permitted. I was proud of her.
That gray Friday was her last day: a permanent teacher would start with the new semester. I walked over, expecting to say good-byes.
"Teachers don't get told 'thank-you' enough, so I want to be sure to tell you this," she began. "When I was in college, I decided I didn't want to be an elementary school teacher. And I thought about your class, the College Lit class, and how much fun we had in there. And I wanted to teach like that." She drew in a breath. "What I mean is, I became an English teacher because of you."
"Me?" Stunned, I reached for a tissue. I looked at her again and handed her one, too.
We sat down for a couple of minutes and reminisced about her class. Then we talked about her semester here and her plans for the future. At least, I think we did. I was a little dazed.
The first bell rang, and she rose to leave. "Thank you," I said. I couldn't tell her how much this meant to me.
"Thank you," she said firmly and headed out the door.
I turned back to the window, wiped my eyes and collected myself as students filed in. Miss J and Mrs. Wright had been blessed by their teachers, I thought, and they had shared that blessing with me. I had passed it on to Missy without even knowing it. And today she had given it back to me. Outside, sunrise had lightened the gray clouds to silver.
I turned to the class as the tardy bell rang, took attendance and handed out semester exams. While they worked, I started thinking. A new semester started next week, and those old lesson plans just weren't going to get the job done.
I opened my plan book to a new page, picked up my favorite black pen, and started over.