You’ve got to love a first grade teacher who shoves a 5 foot black cylinder on her head and then walks around for the entire day as a microscope for Halloween. Especially a teacher that also convinces her otherwise sane teaching assistant to go as “Germs on a Petri Dish” for “continuity of theme.” Yes, Miss Sally is a true character – a former bacteriologist, who has spent the last 20 years raising her own children and teaching first grade. She is a teacher who really knows her stuff, both in and outside the classroom. More importantly to me, she will always been that person who single-handedly wrangled my child into becoming really really excited about learning.
And believe me, she had her work cut out for her. My son, Dominic, who I love more than I can say, was not the world’s easiest kindergartener. After managing to get himself into a great school, he basically hit the “regression” button and started a steady backslide of unacceptable behavior. My otherwise sensitive, thoughtful little boy morphed into an easily distracted rascal who found school “hard” and the bad kids “cool.” Some of his shining moments included inventive variations on potty talk in the assembly line, spitting blue potion on the “girl’s team” to turn them into toads and sending the entire third grade into total confusion by ringing the lunch bell 20 minutes early. His report card had comments like “shows little empathy” for his class mates and “refuses to take responsibility for his actions.” We also got the slightly more encouraging comments like “works well when watched” and “appears bright although tries not to show it.” I was literally at wits’ end. Who was this child and where did he take my son? What had happened to that sweet, curious little fellow that I had been raising for the past six years? At home, Dominic would vacillate from being Mr. Tough Guy who wanted to build “bombs” and debate me on the merits of videogames (which to this day he has never played) to a whiney kid who spoke in baby talk, and needed cuddles and reassurance every few minutes. And although our son squeaked through to first grade by the skin of his teeth, both his father and I were convinced that we had the makings of a tiny serial killer on our hands.
And then along came Miss Sally. A tiny, waif-like woman with large thick glasses and flat straight bangs that made her look a little like peppermint patty from Peanuts. The word on the street was that she was a tough but excellent teacher whose literacy and math results were always “off the charts” for her students. I had heard that she was completely no nonsense and that naughty boys were her forte. At orientation, she made it clear that we needed to deposit our children 15 minutes before the school bell rang or else they would be considered “late.” Instead of playing in the yard where kids could get over-amped, her kids would already be working on quiet projects and getting a jump start on a busy day of learning. She reassured us that our kids wouldn’t notice they had extra school each day and would soon learn to love it. We were to “stay away” from class for the first few months while the kids got the hang of being good citizens. Spanish, P.E. and music can wait, she explained. The important thing is for the kids to understand how to behave in the classroom and around each other. Given last year’s debacle, we didn’t dare question her methodology. Inside, however, we braced ourselves for the fallout. It never happened.
From day one, Dominic fell in love with first grade. I don’t know whether it was the structure or loving firmness of an experienced teacher but in either case my son found the bright roadmap for success. He came home bursting with pride at having had “no breaks or warnings” on his first day as a grader. He also had “a gazillion” things to tell me – like how cool Ms. Sally’s pencil’s were, the really neat things they were going to be learning about (like germs, recycling and nutrition) and the totally awesome field trips that they be taking - like to the local dump. Within a few weeks, Dominic had decided to become the “smartest” person in the world and needed to get started on reading “every book in the universe.” He also told me that he wanted to be a bacteriologist just like his teacher. All of a sudden, he was talking about microscopes and Petri dishes as hot “wish list” items – replacing last year’s Christmas request for laser guns and army traps. His transformation literally left me speechless.
As the weeks turned to months, I watched Dominic blossom, bursting to share with me his new activities and cool factoids. A grown-up sheds 9 pounds of skin a year. Most people blink 12 times a minute. You can only kill germs on your hands if you wash them with soap for a full 30 seconds. There needs to be protein with every meal. Dominic was literally overflowing with Miss Sally information and couldn’t wait to get more. And it wasn’t simply because the topics were inherently fascinating to him. Miss Sally taught so that her kids “discovered” the information, rather than just “learned” it. Instead of reading about what germs do to food over time, Miss Sally had them rub peeled potatoes on the edge of garbage cans and then study them in transparent baggies for a week. Instead of asking them to solicit donations for the classes “hunger project,” Miss Sally had them take home lists of chores and actually earn the money through jobs paying 1 to 3 cents each. And instead of just reading about nutrition from a food pyramid, each child “analyzed” their own lunches and gives their parents “points” based on the nutritional completeness of their meals. Miss Sally turned every studying point into a full fledged adventure, every lesson into a creative project and every question into a grand experiment. My son was completely enthralled.
Granted, the little rascal in him didn’t vanish completely. He still has his moments (like a giggle fit in the middle of circle or daydreaming at one of his work stations)… but it was nothing that Miss Sally couldn’t handle. And more importantly, Dominic learned to handle these behavioral hiccups too – with a quick confession and then a graceful moving on. There is no longer the squirming and debating that used to be so much a part of our “misbehavior and consequence” discussions. Dominic could now tell me the facts and then quickly dispense with them as “simply a bad choice.” In his latest report card, Miss Sally described Dominic, among other things, as “an intense and interested learner.” She expressed her hope to be able to keep Dominic "engaged and excited and questioning throughout the remainder of the year.” I have no doubt she will do it – no doubts at all.
Miss Sally now has a unique spot in my son’s heart. She is that once in the life time teacher who took the time to really “get” my son and inspire him to want to do his best. Her lessons will live on as he crosses each new stage of his education and embraces his role as a life long learner. For me, Miss Sally has taught me some lessons as a parent of this wonderful little boy. That patience, passion and persistence really do make a difference. And that it is the process rather than the product that is the real prize.
As I think about it, Miss Sally couldn’t have picked a better Halloween costume this year than her giant microscope. Unwieldy as it was, it summed up her role in our son’s life to a tee. The power of her teaching, like that of a microscope, lies in her ability to bring to life things (and people) that would otherwise go unnoticed. She reminds all of us that even the small things in life are worth nurturing and focusing upon – including little learners.