When I was eight, something wonderful happened to me. September rolled around and I wound up in Mrs. Richardson’s class. Virginia Richardson was the kind of teacher that comes around once in a lifetime. Inspiring, wise, committed, compassionate. The kind of teacher you want your own children to have every year.
Each morning we all sang together, loudly and proudly, off key or on: “Take a moment when you wake up in the morning, to find a cheery word to say!” And she modeled exactly what we sang about.
Once, in the middle of a discussion of the dangers of smoking, one of my classmates suddenly yelled out: “My dad smokes, but he only smokes once a year!”
Guess what Mrs. Richardson did. You might think she said, “Please raise your hand!” or “We don’t shout out!” or even “Even once a year is too often for cigarettes!” But here’s what she did. She smiled, shook her head and said,
“Oh, and that cigarette must feel like eating a whole box of See’s Candies!”
My mom and grandma smoked, and her response let me know I didn’t have to feel ashamed about it. It wasn’t a good idea, but it didn’t make them (and us) “bad”.
We all huddled on an upholstered mat in the corner of the room while Mrs. Richardson enthralled us with A Wrinkle in Time. We put our growing arms around each other. We danced wildly to the soundtracks to “The Point” (“Me and my Arrrrrow….Takin’ the high road….”) and “Free to Be…You and Me” (“Brothers and Sisters, sisters and brothers, each and every one…”) It was 1976 and we celebrated the Bicentennial. We were all there together–in one place at that one moment in the vast expanse of time that came before us and after us. Happy.
Carmelita taught us some Spanish and how to make Mexican chocolate with the “Bate, bate” stick. Her mom brought in bunelos. I’ll never forget the lightness, the crunchiness, the sugary, cinnamony perfection of those impossibly perfect pinwheels.
Catherine was from Hawai’i, via the Philippines. She taught us “Pearly Shells” and we hula-ed without worrying about whether or not we were doing it right.
Romando, her cousin, was definitely gay. He hung out with the girls and he was the BEST dancer in the whole class. He taught us all how to shake our groove things. We all marveled at his agility and rhythm. The other boys thought it was so cool and tried to get it right. When they didn’t, we all laughed together, and Romando remained the dance champ.
Some kids were really advanced and sharp, some struggled, some may have been stigmatized as “behavior problems” earlier or later in their school lives, but in Mrs. Richardson’s room, everyone was a gift. I never knew which students were her favorites, which ones may have elicited an inward eye-roll. She loved us all: the one with the dirty fingernails, the one with the messy penmanship, the one who had a hard time with math, the one who was rich, but secretly suffering, the one with the pressure to be perfect. And because she did, we did.
There were no “behavior problems” in Mrs. Richardson’s class. Never. Stuff may have gone down on the playground, but within those walls, behind that door with the nondescript number “8”, we were a family. A functional, supportive family, not that other kind, the kind many returned to at 3:00 each day.
When we came in from recess, all jacked up on white bread and chocolate snack pack pudding, would she tell us to quiet down? Would she yell over us to sit still and get to work? Would she wait until every pair of eight-year-old hands were folded and we’d assumed a collective pose of dutiful submission? Of course not. She was Mrs. Richardson.
We would gather around one big table, or flop in a circle on the floor and she would whisper: “Close your eyes, children.” Her love would wash over us and she would guide us through a beautiful scene–walking down the beach, strolling through a quiet meadow, listening to waves or birds or the crunching of leaves–to welcome us back to the safety of her room, our home. In two minutes, max, we were calm and ready for the real learning she always had in store for us.
We learned so much in her class, too. Times tables! Newberry-Award Winning novels! History! It was 1976, after all. We ate up everything about the American Revolution and the thirteen colonies, because it was relevant and fun and real. Not because it was was mandated in the standardized scope-and-sequence. Mrs. Richardson was no spring chicken. She’d already been teaching for many years, but she never seemed tired, distracted or disengaged.
I’m 100% sure if “No Child Left Behind” had reared its head back then, she would have just laughed right at it. Then she would have taken out her secret teacher wand and dissolved it right before our wide eyes. “Not on my watch!” She would have said. Then she would have blown on her wand, turned to the stunned room full of eight-year-olds and said, “Now where were we?”
We learned everything we needed to know that year. Her lessons on nouns, verbs, conjunctions, metaphors and figurative language stuck. Did she hand us worksheets? Take a guess. She would play silly, catchy grammar songs on the little record player and we would dance. Sometimes, in the middle of reading a story, she would stop and say, breathlessly, “Listen! Listen to this beautiful sentence!” Then she would ask if we thought it sounded beautiful too. We DID think it sounded beautiful! She would get up from her cozy rocking chair, walk to the board, and show us exactlywhy it sounded that way. We wanted to try it! It was like a magic trick! It was sentence diagramming, but she was wise enough not utter that dead, clinical moniker. Learning was never painful, frightening or hard. It was always amazing. Real learning is always like that.
Even I was was a math whiz that year. You know why? Because, at the beginning of the school year, after observing me working out a few (manageable) problems, she told me I was. “YOU are excellent at math!” she said. I wasn’t. I’m sure my previous year’s math scores were in my file and she was well aware that it was an “area of concern”, but I didn’t need to know that. That year, I soared through every math unit. I loved math and it loved me back.
The next year, not so much.
Mrs. Z., my fourth grade teacher, was more concerned with re-applying her bright red lipstick than teaching her fourth graders….anything, really. She used a pre-packaged program called “Math Your Way”–the precursor, I’m sure, of the computer-based, one-size-fits-all, math programs so popular today. There was no math instruction. I fell behind. I was shamed in front of other students, along with the other strugglers and stragglers. Other students were constantly singled out and lauded. I hated, hated, HATED math forever after. We all knew who Mrs. Z’s “shining stars” were. They were the ones who didn’t need any extra help at all.
And so it went. The “smart kids” were separated from the “dumb kids”. They didn’t say that out loud, but from 4th grade to 12th grade, we all read it loud and clear. Ten. Four.
The clean kids, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who gave the “right” answers, the ones from certain families, were the “shining stars”. The others, well, they knew who they were. Diversity–cultural or otherwise– was rarely celebrated (Never? I seriously can’t think of one example between 1978 and 1987). The Mexican girls I met in middle school were tough. They wore black eyeliner and flannel shirts and chains. The teachers didn’t ask them to teach us Spanish or invite their parents in to class to “bate bate” or share a favorite family dish. The teachers averted their eyes when those girls passed in the halls. Kids misbehaved in class. Badly. In Language Arts, I was the “shining star”, but it didn’t make me feel good. It made everyone else resent me and pick on me. It made them feel ashamed in Language Arts, just as I felt ashamed when I walked into math class.
But I carried Mrs. Richardson with me and her distant, boundless approval gave me the stamina to move through it all. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, with students of my own, I like to think of Virginia Richardson as a Patron Saint of sorts. Maybe she’s the Patron Saint of Lost Teachers, a beacon of reason, excellence and love in a too-often harrowing and disillusioning profession. I summon her sprit whenever I’m about to cave in to something I know isn’t the right thing for my students. I ask myself: “WWVRD”? She never fails to steer me right back on course.
It’s that time again. Kids are heading back to class, heads full of ideas, excitement, fear, memories–good and bad, dreams and nightmares. I’m sending out a prayer that every student, everywhere, winds up in Mrs. Richardson’s class this year.