I first met Rose, an older teacher of 4th and 5th graders when I was hired at the school district at the edge of town that served mainly kids in poverty. The new superintendent had called a meeting to discuss adoption of new textbooks. In California in those days a new textbook series was purchased every 7 years as part of curriculum updates and to replace worn out books. The superintendent asked Rose what she thought of the new reading books since she had spent an hour or two reviewing the choices. She said she couldn’t really know until she had taught the new series for a year.
Wow! I thought this lady was right on target with the reality of teaching. Only bureaucrats and textbook sales people assumed one could select the best curriculum just by reviewing the books. The more I saw Rose in action, the more I understood what a great teacher she was. Not only did she understand curriculum, more importantly she understood teaching and her students, especially the boys.
Rose had a unique way of looking into each kid and somehow seeing what he or she could become. She looked past any misbehavior and learning difficulty to see each kid as someone who was becoming wonderful. Then she taught to that wonderful person. And usually, the wonderful person emerged sooner than later.
Yet Rose had no false expectations of children. To illustrate what she considered reality of the teaching-student relationship she shared what began as a heartfelt story of her colleague, Teresa, a life long teacher who had dedicated herself religiously, spiritually, financially and physically to her elementary school children. Teresa, towards the end of he career developed breast cancer. She struggled through radiation and mastectomy returning after each siege of debilitating treatment to her classroom and children. She spoke of each child in ways that reflected not only her love but also her knowledge of their needs and abilities. She lost a dramatic amount of weight and needed new clothing for work. She accepted this challenge of living in a different body and bought an entirely new wardrobe so she looked as professional as she could in new, better fitting clothing. When her hair fell out, she bought several of the latest wigs to help her fit in and not shock the kids.
But the return of this kind of love and devotion was not part of the compact elementary kids have with their teachers. Teresa learned this during her last days at school. It was a wonderfully clear and crisp Fall day when she took her class out for kickball. Every kid loved kickball in those days and the girls weren’t old enough to have learned that they shouldn’t. It is played like baseball on a diamond of 4 bases. A pitcher stands at the pitchers mound and roles the ball to the kicker who waits behind home plate. The kicker runs towards the rolling ball from behind the plate and tries to time her kick so her foot meets the ball just as it crosses home plate. If the timing is right, the kicked ball flies faster and farther than it would have if the kicker just stood still and waited for the ball to cross the plate. In most schools in poverty areas, however, there is no actual pitcher’s mound, just a line on the blacktop. Playing on blacktop is actually a big step up from playing the game in the dirt.
Teresa stood next to first base feeling queasy but joyful at the fact that she was with her kids again after another debilitating treatment. As she gazed out over the playground Jimmy Jones was calculating the perfect timing for his run up to the plate to kick the ball. He arrived at the plate at the right moment but took his eye off the ball to look in the direction he hoped to kick the ball. This resulted in a strong shot, a bullet down the first base line. The ball looked like it would stay in bounds but at the last moment it swerved and smacked Teresa on the side of her unsuspecting and ethereal head. As she dropped, her wig flew off in the opposite direction of the ricocheting ball. She was so stunned that she didn’t put her hands out to stop her fall. As her body made contact with the black top, she cracked the back of her head. Barely conscious she heard the kids on the bench cry, “Interference!” This was Teresa’s last day at school.