September always brings a sense of nostalgia and deja vu for me. Something about the intersections of new beginnings and letting go. This is the first year in many that it doesn’t mean back to school for me… but I have a lot of friends who are teacher, was raised by a teacher, and with teachers trying to navigate the horrors of COVID, active shooter drills, online classes, and more, my mind is on them today.
As my mind wanders back 30 years ago, I think of the most influential teacher of my life; Ms. Perry, eighth-grade homeroom, English, and history bookending my school day. She also ran an informal support group after school. She was a published poet, smoked a pipe, drove a 59 corvette, and stood on a chair the first day of school to turn off the ongoing litany of announcements from the intercom because they were getting in the way of her lesson plan.She developed a rapport with students by simultaneously listening and challenging us to the core. She brought lessons home to the practical life and developmental level of our age group. She mediated student conflicts better than the school counselor, and though stern, she never shamed a student who was engaging in sex, drugs, cutting, eating disorders, smoking, or any other risky behavior. She encouraged my poetry, which was a source of therapy for me for many years.
As a young child, I wanted to be a writer and counselor when I grew up. I lost those dreams for a long time, but in many ways, she kept that dream from dying. We kept in touch for a few years via letter and two visits when I was in town for the holidays.
I learned that she had passed away a few years ago, and I wish that I’d kept in touch longer. The last time I wrote to here was when my son was still an infant.
I’d had a lot of mediocre teachers growing up as well. I had some teachers that were great, but still couldn’t hold a candle to Ms. Perry. I had one who was a favorite, but later found out that she complained bitterly to my grandmother about my being a problem student and wanted to kick me out of the GATE program I was in for what are now considered learning and developmental disabilities. Despite the negative experiences I had with some of these, I still honor them because I was raised by a teacher and I have worked with at-risk and foster youth, some of whom had already been in the juvenile “justice” system. I know what it takes to face a group of students with divergent backgrounds and do the jobs of parent, social worker, counselor, babysitter and disciplinarian all in one.
I share all of this today to 1. Honor the teachers in our lives who are navigating extremely difficult circumstances, and 2. to shift our focus back to the fact that while the world is on fire around us, life goes on and we keep doing the things we need to do, but rarely honor those efforts.
Thank you to all of the teachers I have had and to all of those in my life now. Who was your most influential teacher?