There was a mix of emotion on the way home from the girls’ last day of school. It was, surely, the first moment of summer; and kids frolicked with fudgecicles in one hand, report cards in the other. But when I first saw Grace outside the school walls she walked straight up to me, tucked in under my arm and immediately started crying. The last day with Mrs. Blair, her second grade teacher who is often and accurately compared to Mary Poppins, makes us all want to cry. Daughter in tears and the prospect that it was my own last day of being a parent of a Mrs. Blair student . . . well, let’s just admit that I’m only better at hiding tears than my daughter with 30 fewer years of emotional callous. Mrs. Blair, also with tears, was around for a few more hugs, assurances, promises to see children (and parents) again.
Walking home we talked about their new teachers for next year. These assignments come in sealed envelopes, opened by everyone even still on the school grounds, just outside the doors, gargoyles from the old school still staring over their shoulders.
I imagined and asked what it would be like if, upon opening and unfolding the letter, it reported, “Grace’s third grade teacher will be Darth Vader.” This led to lots of other possibilities. Darth Maul as a kindergarten instructor, for example:
I’m proud to say that the girls have the same love for things ironic or discrepant, and laughed at the image of the poor, tormented novices to our elementary education system. Also, we all know that there have been worse placements in the history of public education. It wouldn’t be too great a stretch to assign Jabba the Hut some upper administrative position, or the Emperor a seat behind the front desk of some 5th grade class. The girls both thought it would be beneficial to take a class from Princess Leia, and I’m pretty sure I had a class from Han Solo, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away.
Stranger still, this reminded me of Rosie, my middle and high school choir teacher. A few months ago, as various presences on Facebook were becoming more and more prevalent, I saw Mrs. R. on a friend list. She would be in her late seventies, but still looks vibrant and still remembers me. She was encouraging but firm, demanding and passionate. I learned to appreciate major sevenths sung a cappella. Most important, though, she was a link that could verify a legend I had been telling my family for years. None of my loved ones believed me. My note to Rosie went like this:
I actually have wanted to ask you a question for years now, because you could settle a dispute. I’ve told Karyn (my wife) for years that I sang the “Ewok Song” in junior high with the choir, complete with the lyrics, “Yub nub, ee chop yub nub” or something like this. As you can imagine, it’s pretty funny to tell someone this, because it sounds like I’m making it all up. Do you remember this song? Everyone else in my family thinks I’m crazy, or thinks I’m just making up the whole thing.
And she replied:
I had a really good laugh at your mention of “Ewok”. That was a fun one to do with Jr. High! And yes, we did do it! I went online and found it complete with words and even a performance. So check it out!
So there we have it, my approaching-eighty former choir director both confirming a distant memory, as well as giving me a lesson in searching for things online. Maybe that’s the essential quality of our really good teachers: They surprise us both with their own magical abilities as well as what they’re able to pull out of us. Anna’s teacher, Miss Bennett, created snow in their classroom in August, read their minds in October, and got them to pilot the space shuttle in February. Grace’s first grade teacher, Ms. Cotter, was able to entrance 30 six-year-olds with a calm demeanor, few words, and gentle hand as she led them down the hallway as a counterpart first grade teacher could be heard yelling hysterics in the classroom they passed. Karyn made eighth graders love her and love literature at the same time; and now she has young kids with no phonemic awareness to start the year reading at grade level by the end of the year. These kinds of changes are, to me, magical. It’s embarrassing that I even purport to teach any “teaching methods” classes. If I could explain what it is that makes all of us cry when we leave Mrs. Blair’s classroom, I’d be qualified to teach such a class. As it is, I’m just a poser*, trying to invoke Yoda and Jedi Knight training in some ancient art I barely understand myself.
So, we swallow hard on the last day of school and wipe a tear. Maybe some of it is because we know we’ll never be in second or fourth or twentieth grade again. Maybe some of it is leaving friends, moving on to new classrooms. Maybe much of it is just a fondness for experiences of the past year. But mostly I think it’s because we leave behind a certain magic that we get to experience through the gift of our teachers,** and that’s something you can never re-create in the same way as when you’re in second grade with Mrs. Blair.
*This isn’t a plea for encouragement. I do think I “teach” courses on teaching pretty well; I think I know what I’m doing most of the time, and people are better off for taking my courses. But it’s different than anything else I teach. There’s no algorithm for a successful teaching episode, and none of the magical teachers I get to see are doing anything that can be listed out in an instruction manual.
**Except for my own fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Brill. She was a total witch.