Ode to a Fine Teacher

How blessed are we who hold fond memories of teachers who due to their excellence, left us with indelible impressions. One such teacher, was Mr. White. He is now gone into the pages of pedagogic history. He passed away without my being able to tell him how grand it was to have been his student. I hope he can see my writing from way up in heaven…

It was the first day of 6th grade, at Cullen Elementary. It was a typically hot early September morning, with all the children adorned in their newly bought school clothes. Mine were from Buffum’s Department Store and my shoes were from Bullock’s Pasadena. Apparently, I had “outgrown” the Hartzler’s Shoe Store experience, and had “moved up” to the more “mature” location to buy my patent leathers. I remember we even topped off that particular excursion with a treat in the Bullock’s Tearoom over puffed pastries which resembled a chef’s hat and were filled with heavenly cream. Fortification for the future ladies of America, I suppose. Indeed, it was another form of learning for observant, young eyes….

That cusp of autumn morn, looking down at my shiny shoes and all decked out to meet my new teacher, I felt it was an exciting, auspicious occasion. I was standing in line amongst my new classmates outside on the blacktop. We were waiting the arrival of the very person who would guide us through our pivotally important last preteen grade. One of my classmates I knew from the year before, whispered over her shoulder to say, “Why doesn’t he just open up our classroom?” I responded, “Beats me! He is the first male teacher I have ever had! I’m a little scared, aren’t you?” That was the moment when a very tall personage strode past me coming up from the rear of our line. He stopped, turned around after hearing my remark, and with an oh so subtle smirk, said, “Oh, you’ll find I’m not so bad, as long as you try your best!” That did it. I was hooked. Starry-eyed the rest of the day, and every single day to the end of the year, I was in awe of Mr. Wonderful,  formally known as Mr. White.

What a classroom we had! Our view of the mountains was caught in the north facing wall of windows. We looked out onto the playground, just past it was the baseball diamond, and that was followed by a sweeping upward carpet of verdant grass stretching the distance to the chainlink fence which hemmed in our campus. Bordering our school, just beyond the fence, were widely spaced apart palm trees whose frond configuration looked as if they were women who had just unraveled their curls from the overnight rollers in their hair. Then you would see across the street, a church on the corner, followed by a few homes. The lots were generous in size so no more than three could be viewed from our classroom, though the entire street continued east and westward with homes aplenty.  If your gaze continued upward, it would be awash in the majestic presence of our foothills. Beautiful and reverent to me.

Inside, running the length of our windows was a counter. On top of it were enticements for the budding mind: a telescope, microscopes, a world globe, an SRA Reading kit and a basket full of multicultural and organic realia…shells, pine cones, various rock specimens, castanets, a rudimentary tambourine, maracas, and Hawaiian palm fans. In the far corner of the counter up near the blackboard, was a standing human torso anatomy model, a record player and an autoharp. All the trappings of a teacher poised to inspire. And that he did! Decades later, I realized so much of what comprised this man and his self-made world defined me as a person and a teacher.

Under the counter along the wall, were scores upon scores of books. Each and every one was labeled by color-tape coding. He had used the SRA Reading system as his guide and supplemented a library’s worth of books. This collection ran along the windows’ counter as well as the south wall, starting where his desk was located. The incentive was to work your way around the room by reading all the colors necessary to you and your level of ability. Everyone wanted to reach purple or maroon, which were the highest levels. I remember reading was an emphasis, but, not the only one. Reading was the anchor for all the other subjects. If we were investigating micro-organisms, writing research papers about other nations of the world, exploring outer-space, delving into the merits of National Parks, we had a veritable treasure trove of books to pull from, including several encyclopedia collections. This was my “candy store “. Being a voracious reader, I loved reading to find out, to learn, to deduce. I still enjoy that type of reading the most. We did read fiction, but, I recall historical fiction, such as Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” being one novel that stood out that particular year.

Our clearly well- planned instructor instituted a practice of having us present a current event to the class once a week. We had to locate an article from the newspaper, read it aloud to our classmates and offer our own commentary on the piece. That year Walt Disney died. I remember presenting an article all about his life and his passing. Now, being a Southern California kid, I felt this was indeed devastating news. After my reading, we engaged in a whole class discussion about the famed innovator who was a mover and shaker. Mr. White then had everyone write down their feelings they wanted to express about Mr. Disney, since so many children exhibited sorrow and even shed some tears. It was the prevalent “buzz” all that week, and as we purged our feelings onto paper, we all had more than enough knowledge to expound on the subject. I recall this experience as very emotional. I think it also kick-started my love of reading about people contributing greatly to our world- artists, botanists, musicians, scientists, architects, inventors, etc. To this day, biographies are my first choice in reading.

Not only under the excellence of this educator did my reading flourish, from the story of Luther Burbank to the tantalizing short mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock, but so did my writing. Mr. Wonderful seems to be the first teacher who really took notice of my zest to write. I hold a happy memory of Mr. White replacing his afternoon read-aloud to the class, with his surprising request for me to come to the front of the room, take his honorable seat on the stool behind his overhead projector, and read something he thought was worth listening to. Perplexed, I looked up at him with an “Okay….uh…sure!” He handed me my own story I had written called “The Buccaneer”. You see, being somewhat of a tomboy, I had a robust interest in the adventurous escapades of pirates. I must say, Hollywood helped a great deal in that department, too. (I’m certain some of my story development must have been infiltrated by a few details from several pirate themed movies I had seen on television). it was a privilege to write, then read one’s own ideas. He could not have done anything more special if he had handed me a golden pen. His blanket approval of my writing beyond the letter grade, was a magical gift that served me for life.

Amongst the daily activities in our 6th grade oasis, we were engaged in many “hands on learning” enterprises. I recall enjoying all of them, from the perfunctory to the intensely skill summoning. I recall loving our California spelling books, and the fact that the lessons unlocked “key patterns”. The joy was in memorizing how to spell them as well as write them over and over to imprint exactitude. It was empowering to know the rules and be able to utilize them whenever in doubt. I especially loved putting each word into a sentence. (Actually, my third grade teacher lit the fire on that one). That normally boring exercise to some pupils, enabled me to tap into and voice my imagination. But, our teacher allowed us to study our spelling lists together and test each other in any way we seemed fit. The camaraderie was helpful and manifest widespread cheerfulness.

That year we had a plethora of group assignments. I remember working up at the front of the room with a partner or two on coloring in a giant map that the overhead projector had enlarged onto paper taped to the blackboard. We were big kids, so we used colored pencils. It was really fun, and had everything to do with what we were learning in Social Studies. We must have been studying Hawaii at length, and one morning we all sat up erect in our seats because Mr. W had promised us something that would keep us “on our toes”. The night before we had all put our heads to our pillows; racking our brains for what we thought that might be! Turns out, he brought out two very long wooden poles and plunked a grass hat atop his head. He then passed out leis and turned on some Hawaiian music. After that, the actual teaching of how to do the indigenous people’s pole dance is a bit murky in my memory. All I know was, I didn’t want the two poles to slam up against my foot as I hopped and danced across and through them to the island beat. I think the best fun was being one of the pole holders at either end. The two poles were held parallel to one another. You would simply hold the same end of both poles, while kneeling on the floor, and lift slightly to tap the floor twice with both poles spread apart. Then you were to tap the still parallel poles together a little higher up in the air. Your opposite pole holder did this in sync with you on the other end holding the same poles. The dancers would usually be one or two at a time and have to deftly hop in and out of the spaces between the poles, being cognizant of the rhythm and timing. It was a mixed bag of nervousness, anticipation, and explosive laughter. This dance became a fixation for our class the rest of the year and I still fondly think back on the hours of glee we all shared.

Art was definitely encouraged. We made geometric string art based on math and graph paper, encapsulated dead June bugs into hardening resin paperweights, and wove God’s eyes around small sticks with thick, colorful roving. I think we even made decorative stamped copper medallion plates. This was the era when Peter Max and Joseph Stella art was becoming popular to mimic. Mr. White allowed us free time to draw intersecting lines and swirls on blank paper in spontaneous fashion, and then color in the fields. I still have a jolly time doing that on a rainy day. Encouragement of creativity was no stranger in his classroom.

Conversely, lessons were learned, too. I still kind of mourn receiving a minus on what would have been my A+ country report about Argentina. I had slaved over that project for weeks on end, compiling graphs, drawings, photographs, maps, information and refining the writing. We were told the cover creativity would yield great weight to the overall grade. Our cover must ingeniously reflect the subject in some way. I don’t know anymore what my cover looked like, but I was darn proud of it. Trouble was, I either was late arriving to school, or I stayed home the day it was due to be turned in. I pressed on to put the final touches on my “masterpiece”. Well, needless to say, I was docked for it, and it irked me to no end. But, I learned a valuable lesson about punctuality. By the way, I still grapple with it…sometimes I am insanely perfectionist about being prompt, and other times recklessly indolent. But, it’s selective. I did learn and never forgot, the ramifications may not be so sweet. I thank Mr. White for teaching me an important thing about life.

Perhaps the most remarkable gesture our esteemed educator ever did was to show he valued his students’ hearts. He knew a group of friends and I one early morning had discovered much to our dismay and sorrow, a wounded bird on the grass field just beyond the baseball diamond. We ran to tell him, and he cautioned us with how to touch it safely. Where most teachers might have said, “Go inform the school custodian”, he dealt with it personally. Mr. Wonderful gave us a shoebox from within his cupboard, and in it we placed soft leaves, grass and some cotton for buffering. We thought we were going to nurture our fallen bird back to health, but unfortunately it died that day. He allowed us to take the bird back up to the farthest end of the field near the fence on the east, under a row of bordering eucalyptus trees providing shade and a heavenly haven for our pitiful little creature. We were told to go ahead and dig a hole and just bury it. Then, with permission, we gave it a proper funeral punctuated with prayers and poetry. It was just myself and a cluster of friends, but it was quite meaningful to each of us. I always thought that was a very good way to handle the situation. After all, we were either 11 or 12, and had pretty sound heads on our shoulders. I think promoting compassion is a mighty powerful gift to children. I believe affording us the chance to institute reverent custom is equally empowering. He was much more than a 3 Rs teacher. He exhibited omniscience in my twelve year old eyes.

I am so grateful for that 6th grade year. It was a year for me, filled with a couple personally made baseball homerun hits over that chainlink fence, the year I vexed the haughtiest of kids at dodgeball and long ball by being victorious more than once, and the year I suffered bullying in the northwest corner of the schoolyard by a kick to my tailbone for reasons I still do not know. It was the year I learned about parameciums and amoebas, and delved into what the human body was all about via encyclopedias and their fascinating transparent cellophane sheets depicting musculature and the the network of veins. This was the year I fashioned an exploding volcano much to the wide eyes of my fellow classmates. I’m pretty sure Mr. White gave me that task to do for a science project. It was the year I became the Christmas play director and co-writer, the year I learned to count and speak a little in Spanish via the watching of an LA school teacher on the wheeled in television set once a week in our classroom. It was the year I joined the choir and stood under the hot lights above the stage, trying my best to contribute to the beauty of song. It was the year we voted for or against capital punishment and participated in written essays and verbal debates over that subject. It was the year I took Iowa State tests and had the gall to question why we were taking an Iowa test, if we lived in California. It was the year I grew bold enough to participate with peers in tossing wet paper towel balls up onto the ceiling of the girls’ bathroom, and the year I was a “good enough” kid to be hall monitor and take messages to other teachers and to the office. But, perhaps even more defining, this was the year I was entrusted to go down to the kindergarten classrooms and be a teacher’s aide. It soon became my job, and it wasn’t a rarity that I was in charge of the entire group, by myself, whilst the teacher was on break in the office. This is where I learned about preparation and motivation, more than a decade before I became an actual, professional teacher. I thank Mr. White, allowing me that opportunity was by far the most influential decision.

The decisions of a teacher are tantamount to the development of our youth. Mr. White made his with much consideration and scope of wisdom. We never suffered pat disapproval. He always seemed to ruminate on the merits of both sides of the coin, over the outcome of the yeas and nays. But, teachers today have practically been stripped to the bone of their ability to make autonomous decisions. This is truly tragic. Becoming a pedagogue in public school still is no easy feat and must be even harder than decades before. I know there is a whole new host of hurdles to hurl oneself over in order to attain that appointment and certification. Having children taught by those who have not been trained to teach is an ignorant, risky mistake in my opinion. I am sad for the children who may never get to feel the kind and firm care of their teacher, as my generation and I were able to. However, as pointed out on the onset of this essay, Mr. White was a wonderful teacher. He went beyond expectation. Most obvious, is his planning for the whole child: heart, mind, soul and physical. How long will distance learning deprive children from a real relationship between pupil and pedagogue? It seems to me, the time for an instructor to build specified and individualized communication is becoming harder and harder to make possible. I know our teachers will do their utmost to interject lessons geared to individual students, because most teachers really do care. They are committed to making learning quality. I just hope it won’t be too long before kids can return back to the brick and mortar classrooms and to the comfort of knowing their fearless leader is there to listen, suggest, contest, and inspire…like my Mr. White did. My Wonderful Mr. White.