It’s a rather gloomy fall day here in Maryland. I went for an early morning walk with my neighbor, bathed the puppy (she hates it!), shopped a little, and did a few chores. It’s Saturday. I’ve just started a new teaching job (private school and in person), only temporary, but good so far. Actually, I’m enjoying seeing the faces of students after a year away from the classroom, even if it’s only their sparkling eyes peeking out from behind masks. Yes, even in the midst of a pandemic, their eyes do sparkle.
This is a younger bunch than what I’m used to. Most of my teaching career has been spent in the high school setting, but now I find myself in middle school, sixth grade to be specific.
Back in my own 1976 sixth grade classroom, I had the great privilege of being Ms. Brown’s student.
And in my research for my current teaching post, I found myself scouring old yearbooks. So many faces, my own and those of my young friends, gazing back at me as if no time had passed. I won’t name names, but I remembered these people vividly. One boy smelled constantly of sour milk. Another girl wore a world-weary expression and clothes to match. Decades later I would learn the ugly reason. Imagine the worst sort of childhood, and there you have a glimpse into her brief existence.
There was the popular crew, and the shiny penny of a girl who shook off my friendship like a cobweb, moved on to greener friendship pastures. There was the girl who lived in the country, and I recall her backyard smelling of sulfur. Her grandmother’s barn was massive and loaded with cats, including a yellow one they called Watergate. Forty-four years later, I still remember the name of this girl’s grandmother’s cat. This country girl was the friend who got away, someone I should’ve latched onto, but didn’t. She was earnest and smart and witty.
In Ms. Brown’s sixth grade class, I discovered myself in important ways. Her classroom was where I learned to really appreciate reading for the first time. It was the place where I worked on my first piece of “serious” writing, an essay that took third prize in some sort of competition, the name of which I’ve long forgotten, though somewhere I still have the wrinkled newspaper clipping.
This was where it started, sixth grade, and I can still picture Ms. Brown sitting at the front of our classroom, a stout, short woman who wore pantsuits and cat-eye glasses, reading aloud to us. Every day after lunch, she squeezed herself into a desk, legs crossed at the ankles, and read. There were many books, but the one that stood out to me was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I was not one of those children who was read to each night before bed. My mother wasn’t one for books, but I can remember wanting to be a dedicated reader, knowing somehow this was the ticket to an important destination.
Ms. Brown gave me this gift.
In my late twenties, I had the good sense to look up Ms. Brown and send a heartfelt letter to say thank you. I was living far away from my little hometown by then, and it had been many years since I’d last seen her, but by some miracle she wrote back. I was thrilled to find the envelope in my mailbox. Instantly, I recognized her perfect penmanship, though it didn’t take long to realize my former teacher was slipping away. It would be my one and only correspondence with the woman who had given me so much of myself.
The other night while watching the news, there was a story about locals protesting the closure of public schools due to Covid. “Those teachers don’t care about our kids,” some woman said. It was the way she spat “those teachers” that made me stop and stare. I am not unsympathetic to parents trying to work full-time and teach full-time, mind you. This is impossible on nearly every level. But this woman was surely looking in the wrong direction for someone to blame.
If there is anything I’ll take away and recall some years hence about teaching (and living) in the time of Covid, it’ll be this: the young eyes behind the masks, the eagerness in them, the excitement, the joie de vivre, the sparkle. The months ahead are likely to be trying. We’re all weary and wondering when/if this Covid nightmare will end. Often I find myself longing for 2019 and the fun times last fall. Seems like a distant dream to sit at a lunch table across from a friend and breathe freely.
Oh sad, angry lady on the news, how little you know of teachers! How little you know of their hearts and their constant fretting over students, your very own children—how to reach them, how to break through the many layers and distractions, how to make a difference, and reveal to them the gifts they possess and should offer the world.
Maybe we should all try a bit harder to sparkle behind the mask.