Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Good Teachers

Last week, my son and daughter went to a retirement party for their second-grade teacher.

Karen Noel is one of those teachers everyone wishes she’d had, and into whose class every parent angled to get her child.  She is smart and wise, crazy funny, and, maybe most importantly, she knew exactly who every kid in her class was.  She made every day a blast, and yet somehow she managed to brook no nonsense.  And the kids all knew it and loved her anyway.

She had lots of stories to tell us parents.  (To me: “Do you know what your son did today?  He asked me how old I was!  And when I told him, he thought for a second and then said, ‘You’re eleven years older than my mom’!”)  She made us understand that she saw our children as they really were and adored them just that way, as they were meant to be.  (“Your daughter is exactly like you,” she told me once.  “Are you kidding?  She’s nothing like me,” I said.  Karen [eyes closed, exhausted by my silliness]: “She is exactly like you.”)

For years, Karen directed the school musical, in which fourth- and fifth-graders displayed their budding thespian skills.  My son was the Beast in fourth grade (despite Mrs. Noel’s assertion that he sang “in the key of H”) and the Tin Man in fifth.  My daughter was Fagin in fourth grade and Ruth (in The Pirates of Penzance) in fifth.  If you have never seen pre-teens put on Gilbert and Sullivan, you have no idea how spectacular it can be when someone wise and compassionate and insistent on doing one’s best directs it.

Most of us remember our worst teachers.  (Mine were, in order of increasing suckitude, 1) a lovely man who let us watch cartoons and game shows in sixth grade; 2) a very learned professor from a neighboring college who delivered the same lecture two days in a row, probably because he was roaring drunk; and 3) my tenth-grade geometry teacher, who picked his nose all day, every day.)
But our favorite teachers commandeer a special place in our memories.  (Mine was Jim Killian, who has become a lifelong friend.) We get weepy when we remember them, and we feel unable to make clear to other people just how marvelous they were.  My theory about this is that school (and possibly life in general) is terrifying and grueling and intimidating and just plain hard.  And when you are young, you can be cowed by that, to the point where you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.  But a great teacher changes all that, if only for a year.  And we can’t seem to find enough grand words with which to express our gratitude.

(Mr. Killian, you made every day of high school an adventure and a joy, and you are always in my heart, no matter how often we try to call each other and end up getting sent to voicemail.)

Mrs. Noel was given a proper send-off by the community whose children she nurtured and loved as if they were her own.  Lots of kudos; lots of testimonials; lots of love.  But I’m willing to bet that when my kids talk about her (as they will all their lives), they will say something like, “She was just amazing,” and then be at a loss as to how to convey what she really meant to them.

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