Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Teacher's Influence

Art by Nellie Farnam

I sat on the steps of Sherman Elementary School crying. It was my first day of summer kindergarten and everything had gone wrong. None of my friends were in my class; Mrs. Brown had informed me I couldn't cut right because I was left-handed; I hadn't brought a blanket for rest time and she made me lay on the bare floor; some little girl made fun of my red and white plaid glasses. And now the neighborhood kids I was supposed to walk home with had left me.

Mrs. Brown locked up the school and found me in a sobbing, damp heap. Her husband was in the parking lot ready to take her to a funeral, and she was irritated that I needed extra attention. They grumbled, but put me in the backseat and drove me to the corner drugstore where she called my mother to come and get me. "Your little girl is too immature for kindergarten," I heard her say.

It was June 14, 1955, and I still remember what I learned:
  1. There was safety in numbers and I was all alone.
  2. Teachers were critical.
  3. Left-handedness made me awkward.
  4. Being unprepared was embarrassing and there were hard consequences.
  5. Wearing glasses made me ugly.
  6. I couldn't trust my friends.
  7. Adults got angry when I was afraid.
  8. I was immature.
  9. I hated school.

Because our schools were overcrowded with baby-boomers, kindergarten was offered only during June and July so that more classrooms were available during the year. After six weeks of summer kindergarten little kids went to first grade in the fall, continuing with the same teacher and class.

Although Mrs. Brown wanted to hold me back for another year, my mom insisted that I was ready to start first grade so I was transferred into Mrs. Hilbig's classroom. I remember a few things I learned there, too.
  1. Mrs. Hilbig was left-handed and she gave me some left-handed scissors. She told me we were in a special club.
  2. A little boy named David told me my glasses were pretty.
  3. Six desks were grouped into "tables" and I made five new friends the first day.
  4. I was in the red reading group, which I knew was the best.
  5. Although I was the youngest and the shortest child in my class, Mrs. Hilbig told my mom I "showed lots of promise."
  6. I learned to tell time before anyone else, and my teacher complimented me on saying "It's quarter after."
  7. My parents were on my side.
  8. I could handle being on my own.
  9. I wanted to be a teacher.
The most significant thing I learned is that it matters what you say to people. They remember . . . for decades. And sometimes they don't get over it.

There's an old song that says, "Let us oft speak kind words to each other, at home or where e'er we may be." My foremost goal every day is to say kind, encouraging things to the people around me, yet I shudder regularly when I hear thoughtless things go flying out of my mouth. I have good intentions and never mean to sound rude or insensitive, but I haven't learned the fine art of closing my lips in time, every time. It's a daily challenge to speak only kind words.

When our oldest was in second grade she told us Christmas was on Tuesday. I corrected her, saying Christmas was on Friday. She got very upset, insisting it was on Tuesday, because her "teacher said." What a teacher says becomes truth in the mind of a child. And we don't need to have a classroom to be a teacher. We have influence on how others in our world view themselves, whether we want that influence or not. We can choose if we want it to be positive or negative.

Dee's motto is: Think over everything you say, and don't say everything you think. He's good at this. Of course, he doesn't say much—he's busy thinking. Unfortunately, I don't know what I'm thinking until I say it!

Did somebody say something (good or bad) that's stuck with you? Did it influence you in your choices in some way that still applies in your life? Think about the influence you have, and who you've encouraged or discouraged recently. Are you a positive supportive source of hope; or the voice of doom, pointing out the impossibility of pursuing their hopes and dreams.
What's the point of what you say?


mama jo said...

as a kid i remember mr. meyer telling me i should smile more...i still remember that! so i try to smile more...teachers are interesting in the way the mold their students...mrs. marchant didn't like me or mare because we were cousins and sick alot...but, two years later our teacher loved both of us and thought it was great we were cousins...being told you're smart sticks with you...or pretty or nice...everything, dee has it right...think before speaking...

Kay Dennison said...

Oh Lord!!!! My idiot mother tried to change us from being left handed. It didn't work. I've always figured that God did that for a reason. First grade was a nightmare for me.

I think Dee is a very wise man.

Polly said...

I had a few teachers that joked with me and said with that smile you can get away with anything..and I did (that's how I got through school) dad always told me I had a pretty smile. mom told me that in the summer I looked so healthy because I tanned easily and in the winter she told me I looked "sallow" and sickly. which is why I've become a lover of the sun!

Sheri said...

My daughter's a lefty and her kindergarten teacher wanted to hold her back because she couldn't cut right, even though she was already reading on a 6th grade level!!

My brother-in-law says insensitive things to me all the time. I don't think he intends to be mean, but that's how I perceive it. He'll be looking at family pictures and say "look how thin you used to be" or "you used to have nice hair". It drives me crazy! I wish he was more like Dee.

gab said...

I am glad you don't think before you makes conversing with you very hilarious. We can always count on some good Oma-isms!!

diane said...

I went to summer Kindergarten too at Whittier Elementary. Then we moved to Cottonwood Heights and I went to Butler Elementary for 1st grade. I was also the youngest and the shortest. I got glasses in second grade. I guess we live parallel lives. Except that I only have 3 kids.

I have to stop myself all the time because I am constantly saying stupid stuff to people. I'm trying hard to listen more and talk less. I'm not very good at it.

Tiffany said...

Wow. So lovely and poignant. My friend introduced me to a saying recently: "Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?" I love that and think of it often.

Jenibelle said...

Lovely. However I have lived most of my life with one foot or another in my mouth! My mom used to say: "Make your words nice and sweet, for someday those words you may have to eat." I am known for my bluntness, not always a good thing; I wish I could do as I teach my kids, "think it....don't always say it."

Kim said...

Such a nice post. All my teachers have made such an impact on me (good and bad) that I wanted to teach myself. Thanks for reminding me that my words can be very influential in a young student's life. :)