This week, and right in step with hundreds of thousands of other kids moving from one grade to the next as part of the annual festival-ritual known as “Back To School,” you transitioned to a toddler classroom and acquired a couple of new teachers. One of them was the epitome of Miss Trunchbull: an unsmiling, tired-looking grump who maybe doesn’t even like kids but likes having a job. Or maybe she’s just sad. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s one half a classroom pair (the other gal smiles sometimes), I might be truly horrified. As it is, though, I’m really not. I’ll choose to believe your first skinned knee has nothing to do with being neglected on the playground. It has to do with being given the opportunity to run free and unencumbered.
It turns out that even the ones who aren’t your favorites have their place: an extra special role in making you you.
Look, teachers are hella-important people. Seriously, in my book, they’re right up there with soldiers and doctors and fire fighters and police officers – and not necessarily having anything to do with their specialized training or subject matter expertise (though, to be sure, some of them have it). No. Rather, and by virtue of the fact that they spend so much time with us – to say nothing for the way that lots of them work really, really hard – teachers help shape our character. Sometimes, maybe even often times, they help shape good character.
I remember some of what I learned from textbooks and formal lessons. I remember every teacher I ever had. I paid attention in class – and I paid attention to them.
I remember the way they pointed their fingers, pursed their lips or tapped the chalkboard with a pointer. I knew, because I heard it from some other wise eight-year-old who heard it from her mother, whether they were single or married or had a dog or a daughter or smoked cigarettes on their lunch breaks. I can still hear their voices saying things like, “Correct,” or “Good morning, honey,” or “How are your folks?” For a very long time, I’m quite certain I didn’t completely believe they were regular people like you and me. They were super heroes, movie stars, way up on a pedestal reserved for people you want to be like when you grow up.
These women – for most of them were – taught me to be. And they taught me to be your mom.
The summer before sixth grade, I was handed this formidable reading list at around the same time as I received a tip from a rising seventh grader: “With Mrs. B-, there’s no bullshit.” A semi-truant troublemaker who was barely promoted to the next grade, he meant it as a pejorative. “She’s no joke.” On the one hand, I already loved this woman: I hated bullshit and jokes as much as I hated the semi-truant troublemaker. On the other hand, I hoped “no joke” meant she wouldn’t be unpleasant and that literature would still be my favorite subject at the end of the year.
As it turned out, there was no bullshit. She was no joke. She gave me a 60 percent on my first 10-question quiz. I came home after school that day and promptly informed your grandparents she was as terrible as everyone said, but your grandfather wasn’t buying it. “She’s not terrible. She’s challenging you. And just you wait: You’re going to really like this lady.” And slowly, slowly, I came to see that Pop was exactly right.
Mrs. B- stood a little over five feet tall in heels and commanded the room with a quiet resolve that few children were keen to test because everyone understood she meant business. I never heard her raise her voice. She didn’t have to. She was even-handed, fair, played no favorites. She smiled sometimes. She was, it turned out, kind of nice. She used literature as a mere platform to teach us kids about the way the world worked. (“Kit and Hannah are outcasts. What would it feel like to be an outcast?”) She forced us to look up the meanings of words we didn’t know, use them in sentences and read “up.” (I tackled The Scarlet Letter before my twelfth birthday.) She caused us to think differently, more critically, about books – and, in the process, I began to think more critically about everything…including this little woman who taught me so much of what I know about strength.
Your mama stands a little over five feet tall in heels. She doesn’t raise her voice. (She’s heard.) Your mama is fair. Your mama smiles sometimes. Maybe she’s even kind of nice! And she’ll insist you think critically and believe you are as bold and brave and strong as she knows you are. Thank Mrs. B- for that.
And there were others, kid.
There was Mrs. C-, who never discouraged the idea that girls could be astronauts (or lawyers-turned-non-profit-administrators). She’s a piece of why I think your girl parts are no limit to what you can be.
There was Mrs. N-, who, though I never actually saw the leprechaun she kept in that Ball jar on her desk, helped me to appreciate everyday ordinary/extraordinary magic. She’s how come when we find a shell on the beach, I pick it up, put it to my ear and insist I’m taking a telephone call from a mermaid.
Mrs. R- encouraged us not to be scared of the bombs in Baghdad making the nightly news. Somewhere out there a soldier was busting ass to keep us kids safe. This is still true.
Miss J- was the only woman I knew who liked football as much as she did. Years later, I’d learn there are others. I’d learn the rules of the game, and I’d learn she was on to something. (Apologies to her Bills. In our house, we are Patriots fans! When you’re allowed to stay up past 7:00pm, you’ll know why.)
Mrs. M- hoped we’d take what we learned about the voting process and vote someday because it’s so important. I rock that vote every chance I get, and I take you along for the ride so you’ll behold my extra special power and be inspired to exercise yours as soon as you’re able.
These days, a couple of them are my Facebook friends. With others, I catch up over e-mail a few times a year. Some get your wallet-sized picture in a holiday card. We’ve had visits, coffee, dinner. Turns out, teachers are actually regular people with extraordinary influence. And I’m extraordinarily grateful for it.
Look, you might be just too little to remember Trunchbull. But when you fall down and get back up, dust off your own knees and keep on running, she’ll be at least partially to thank for your resilience. Make no mistakes.
And if you do, learn from them.