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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gray Matter: Teachers are, indeed, special  

Monday, August 22, 2005

Summer is drawing to a close.  It's almost back-to-school time.  With that in  mind, I would like to share a story.  I do this with apologies to you remarkable folks out there who have devoted your lives to instructing our kids.  I know you have a great many far more interesting tales than I have, as my teaching career lasted just one year. 

In the first place, unlike many of my peers,  I never wanted to be a teacher.  When I read Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" in high school literature class, I was hooked.  I HAD to major in English and knew of no other way to make a living with it than to teach.  Long before the days of counselors, I went off to the University of Iowa without realizing that they had no intention of producing secondary teachers.  If you wanted to teach in high school, you went to Teacher's College at Cedar Falls.  As a result of all that, I arrived here in Marcus totally unprepared for the task that lay ahead.

I loved my juniors and seniors.  I struggled a bit teaching a semester of grammar to the juniors but the  semester of speech was great.  The small senior literature class was  elective, so they were ready to learn and we had a fine time.  Freshman and sophomore classes were quite another matter.  I had no idea how to keep the good students challenged while keeping the indifferent ones in line.

One surly, big-for-his-age, freshman was a particular problem.  Today's analysts would probably have a name for it, but I'm not sure naming it would have helped.  Any way, we made it through the year.  World War II was in progress, so the day this kid reached the required age he left school and enlisted in the Marines.  He made it his career and then retired in California. Sometime after my teaching year, this fellow's dad began working for my husband at the Feed Mill.  He was a loyal, hard-working employee as well as a great friend.

Now, fast-forward many years to the Sunday our now-retired employee and his wife were to celebrate their Golden Anniversary.  As we were ushered out of morning services, I saw the honorees in a back pew, the ex-marine seated beside them.  We were still at the back of the church when they came out.  To my amazement, my former student rushed up to me, seized my hand and addressed me by my maiden name.   " I know that's not your name now but that's how I remember you, and I want to apologize  for all the things I did in your class."

I was overwhelmed but  soon recovered enough to assure him that  it was I who owed the apologies.  If I had  been properly trained, I think I might have gotten through to him, aroused his interest and taught him at least a bit of what he had a right to learn.  It was a gratifying exchange. It turned out that in his retirement he was piloting the ferry that took tourists out to Alcatraz .  He promised us a free ride next time we were in San Francisco, but we never got the chance  to accept his offer.

A few years later, at a reunion of  that freshman class,  I  told his former classmates of my encounter.  Many of them refused to believe that such a turn-around had taken place, but, I swear, it is the absolute truth.

As my student had gone on to other things, I changed course, as well.  Following our graduation from Iowa, a college friend had gone to the Mayo Clinic, for what amounted to "on-the-job training", to become a medical editor.  Learning of my disenchantment with teaching, she told me of an opening there.  I applied, was accepted, and learned immediately that  the  Editorial Department was the place for me.  I could work with words all day and never have another concern about people chewing gum, acting up, or in any way making total nuisances of themselves!

How I wish Gray Matter were interactive.  I'm convinced all of us would enjoy some of the tales you lifetime teachers have to tell.  Meanwhile, we all salute you.  Yours is the most important job there is, apart from that of being a parent.