Although I grew up in a certain small town in Ontario-- or, perhaps because of it-- my upbringing was blessed with some remarkable school teachers.
Now that I am a (struggling!) teacher, myself, when I reflect back upon a day, or when I am planning for the next, I often find myself searching my memories for the kinds of things that were important to me, back when I was a young school child.
If I have had a stress-riddled day of attempting to teach junior/intermediate math (during which I swear I can feel the sweat rolling down my back and into my Fruit-of-the-Looms), or had a primary-year experience where my classroom management techniques went right out the window, I remind myself that it is not the curriculum, nor the discipline, that I remember about my favourite teachers. Rather, it is their humanity, their kindness, and their amazing ability to help me see the best in myself, as well as in others.
My earliest school experiences were not entirely happy ones. At the time that I spent one year in Kindergarten,"early learning" was less about social play, and more about acclimatizing the child to a structured environment of strict routines. We did not have learning centres, and to the best of my recollection, we were not "levelled" or helped-along from the point we were at in our abilities. We were taught conformity and obedience, and a little public shaming went a long way to "encourage" those who were reluctant to adapt. Peer pressure was a tool, rather than something to be wary of.
Sadly, grade one didn't start much better. I remember sitting behind a little girl who was already jaded by the fact that she had failed the previous year and returned to the same classroom, with a whole new load of younger kids to deal with. I realize now that she coped by becoming a bully, and her condescension and disdain for me only added to my stress. The desks-in-rows were new to me, as was the teacher's opening exercise routine.
I was liquid with anxiety on the day it was my turn to march to the front of the classroom holding the child-sized Canadian flag, and lead my classmates in the Anthem and the Lord's Prayer. All sense flew out of my head, and when, in a panic, I dared whisper to the all-knowing girl in front of me, "Which comes first: O Canada or the Lord's Prayer???!" our teacher immediately stripped me of my duties, and kept me in for the only detention I ever received in my life. I was detained during lunch hour, and when my mother finally ran into the classroom, wondering why her child had not emerged from the Girl's Door, she was told by the oddly smiling teacher that "there was a bad student in class today". As a mother now, myself, I look back and admire my mum's incredible restraint: had I been in her shoes, I'd probably have ripped that teacher a new orifice for having handled the situation in a way deliberately intended to humiliate us both. My mother's silence and hard stare soon had the teacher back-pedalling, however, and once released, I was able to spill out the whole sordid story in a flood of tears in the car on the way home.
Although the situation doesn't seem to be of earth-shattering magnitude years later, it certainly felt like it then. It was a moment I will never forget, and I dare say it was a factor in the shaping of the "people-pleasing" shell I built for myself and hid in, in school and social environments, for many years thereafter.
As a teacher, I will always remember that small events such as these can have as much effect as large ones: both the good, and especially the bad.
* * *
"Babies are a blessing".
That, for me was a vast understatement, when the dreaded teacher, Mrs. M, left our grade one class to begin her maternity leave, about half-way into the school year.
Enter Mrs. Barton.
I remember exactly what she looked like, right down to the colour of her trousers, and her owl-like glasses, on the day she first walked into our classroom.
She was small and round, with short brown hair. She was young-ish, but old enough to be somebody's mother. She had a soft voice, and a warm smile that dimpled her cheeks and lit up the whole room.
We, clearly, delighted her.
She was the kind of teacher who welcomed questions, and went out of her way to make sure everyone was comfortable in their understanding. I have a picture in my mind's eye of her standing next to a little boy, and bending over to help him with his book, with her arm around his shoulders.
She was the kind of teacher who was interested in the people that WE were. Every morning, she dedicated at least half an hour to hearing our "news" from home, even if it was a re-telling of what had been on our favourite tv show, "Donny and Marie", the night before. She taught us to speak in front of each other, and how to listen with respect. She showed such patience, and never once cut us off, or dismissed our comments as insignificant.
She was the teacher who went home after a highly competitive school "Field Day", and hand-made every student in her class red-checkered ribbons with the letters V.I.P. emblazoned on them. She made it clear that winning red (1st), blue (2nd), or white (3rd) ribbons in each event was something to be proud of, certainly. However, we were ALL Very Important People to her, just by being ourselves. This was a true "formative" moment for me, because the lesson came from her: she was genuine and sincere, and at that moment, I truly believed that I was Wonderful.
For the rest of that year, I loved grade one. I don't remember what we learned, exactly... although I can recollect my two readers, "Treats and Treasures" and "Funny Surprises", which, to my dismay, I recently found in a local antique store...
No, I don't remember much else about grade one, but I do know that I loved YOU, Mrs. Barton. You mothered us along, and we learned how special we were, because it was abundantly evident that you believed it, too.
I wish I could find you and talk to you about some of this-- thank you for some of this-- but I have learned from friends that you lost your battle with breast cancer many years ago.
I still have my red-checked V.I.P. ribbon, tucked away in a safe place.
And whenever I take it out and look at it, I will know in my heart what a Very Important Person you will always be to me, too.