Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An Open Letter to my Middle School English Teacher

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I had the hiccups yesterday, so I sat quietly on my couch and stared at a picture across the room until they went away.  It worked, as it always does.

When I was a sixth grader in your English class in 1980, if we got the hiccups, you would take us into the hall (so we wouldn't get the giggles from the other students) and tell us to look at your eyes.  You would gravely hold our gaze until we realized--they're gone!  When several of us had experienced this miracle, you told us how to do the same thing by looking into a mirror at home.  Eventually, we figured out it wasn't the eyes, but the calm focus, and so learned how to calm our hiccups anytime, anywhere.

You were my teacher for all three years of middle school.  You sighed and told us that it was too bad, because we would benefit more from having other teachers, being exposed to other styles of teaching.  We knew better.  In your classroom we sat in organized rows.  We took spelling tests every Friday, covering our papers as you had shown us, so nobody would be put in the awkward position of having seen a neighbor's paper and wondering if we would have remembered how to spell the word on our own.  We knew it was also so we wouldn't cheat, but appreciated the respect you showed our integrity.  We diagrammed sentences, a skill that finally paid off when I started learning foreign languages in which dative and accusative cases were recognizable to me as indirect and direct objects.  We took notes, and learned how to organize our binders.  We came in every Monday eager to see the three new posters that were sure to be hanging behind your desk.

Every Monday.  I can't get over that.

I had another favorite teacher in middle school, Mrs. Boughton.  She was a part-time counselor, part-time math teacher, and taught the TAG class.  The TAG class and your English class were basically the same group of kids.  The year she taught TAG, we sat in a circle and talked about our feelings.  One day one of the "popular" kids, whom I feared and resented, grumbled, "It's so easy for kids like Wendy; all the teachers like her.  They're always just waiting for me to do something wrong."  It was the first time I saw him as a person, and the first time I saw myself from another point of view.  Her class was so very different from yours, but I knew even then what it was that made me love both.

You both loved us.  Every kid in that room was important to you.  You knew us as individuals.  You'd been teaching for decades, but you never acted bored, never just went though the motions.  We mattered to you.  Mrs. Boughton, sitting in the circle with us, cared about us.  You, up at the chalkboard, challenging us to recite our helping verbs in five seconds, cared about us.  (By the way, I can still say them, and so can my brother-in-law, who had you at Capitol Hill in 1969).

I've been a middle school ESL and English teacher for fifteen years.   I have never been and will never be as organized as you were.  (Seriously, three new posters EVERY MONDAY?!?)  I'm more of a Mrs. Boughton than an Ol' Man Johnson.  Sometimes this bothers me.  After all, I learned how to spell Cincinnati, raspberry, and hygiene from you; not to mention the whole sentence diagramming bit; and a love of what I now know is called the Oxford comma.  In Mrs. Boughton's class, the only lesson I distinctly remember was reading A Separate Peace.

Then I think again.  What did I really learn from both of you?  From Mrs. Boughton, I began to learn to not judge others so quickly, to be willing to listen to the story from their point of view.  In your class, I learned valuable organization skills, all the more important because it doesn't come naturally to me.  From both of you, at a time in my life when self-criticism and social bullying were constant, I learned that I had value.  These are the kinds of lessons I want my own students to learn in my classroom.

My students know I love them.  I teach many things: skills, habits, information.  They don't all learn the things that are on the lesson plan, but they all know how important they are to me.  If I am to some of them what you were to me, then that is your legacy.

Sincerely (because that's another word you taught me to spell) and with love (because it's true),

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