Back on August 29th on She Writes, agent Erin Hosier wrote a blog post titled, What Makes a Great English Teacher?. Erin had recently reconnected with one of her favorite high school English teachers via Facebook and interviewed her in her post.
Later that week, on September 3rd, She Writes co-founder, Deborah Siegel wrote a post titled Back to School on a Note of Gratitude, in which she decided more than interviewing her favorite English teacher she really wanted to thank her . Deborah wrote a brief but very lovely note to her favorite English teacher, the one who inspired Deborah and as Deborah put it, “propelled her in the direction that led to a PhD in English Lit”, and later to She Writes. Deborah invited other She Writers to shout out to those teachers that inspired and influenced each of us.
I have been considering that post ever since. Yes, I had a few teachers who made a huge difference in my life; a sixth grade teacher who always made me feel that excelling was never something to be ashamed of and encouraged me to read, anything and everything. And my high school Advanced Lit teacher, who inspired me to go beyond the high school reading lists and look for other works that spoke to me.
But what I really have been thinking about is just the general affect a great teacher can have on any one of us and particularly those that are the defining person in one young student’s life.
Why, might you ask, would I think of this? Because one of my closest friends and a fellow She Writer is a first grade teacher. Mendi Davis writes a blog called 1st Grade Tales which documents many of the day to day events in her classroom.
We speak to each other often on the phone. I remember so clearly last year as we would speak and she would tell me of one particular student who she had a love/hate relationship with. Mendi teaches in a school filled with many students from low-income families, in an area plagued by gangs. She has had many students who have stories of one or another family members being in or getting out of jail or prison, parents who have been killed in gang related violence, and for these kids, that is the norm.
I would often think, I could never do it. I doubt I would have the patience she does. But as she told me last year about this student, one she affectionately calls in her blog Mr. Stinky Attitude, no matter how much he tried her patience with his bad attitude or his dysfunctional family there was always something there. It became apparent that his attitude got worse at times when he was most seeking some boundaries in his life, rules that he could follow, consequences for bad behavior. And it appears, she was the one person who consistently provided those things for him.
By the end of the school year last year, Mendi was exhausted, wanting only to be done with Mr. Stinky Attitude in her classroom. He had tried every last bit of her patience and gotten on every last nerve.
Mendi is not one to toot her own horn or to take credit for even things she clearly could take credit for. So I’ll toot her horn for her.This year, Mr. Stinky Attitude has had what one might call a miraculous turn-around. He is generally happy to be at school, particularly happy to run and give his favorite teacher, Mrs. Davis a hug and to show her how well he is doing in school, to show her his good grades and good marks for his behavior.
This year as well, Mendi has a new student to try her patience. This student it appears has some major issues which often manifest themselves in fits of blood curdling screaming for hours, crawling under his desk and throwing tantrums until he finally falls asleep due to sheer exhaustion. The “educational system” isn’t helping him much and his mother who appears to be in denial about the seriousness of his problems looks to be using the school as a babysitter for her son. This little boy is already nearing that last nerve of Mendi’s.
I want to remind her though, to keep on doing what she does, what few others can do. She is making the difference in a child’s life. She is the stability in that one little boy’s life, she is the one that will be there for him if he can find a way to succeed in a mainstream classroom, but she will also be the one who expect great things from him, that gives him boundaries and consequences.
I imagine that some day, when asked about any teacher that made a difference in his life, Mr. Stinky Attitude will gratefully point to Mrs. Davis and say, “she did because she refused to let me be just a product of my environment. She allowed me to realize that if I recognized the boundaries and believed in myself and worked most on being a good human being, anything is possible”.
So, instead of recognizing just my favorite English teacher, or my favorite teacher of any subject, I would more like to recognize those teachers that do the impossible, day in and day out, teaching children that others have already given up on, giving some kids from hopeless situations some real hope in their lives and making a difference in the lives of children.
I urge you to visit Mendi’s blog and see how things are going this week in first grade.
"One hundred years from now, It will not matter what kind of car I drove, What kind of house I lived in, Or how much money I had in the bank, But the world may be a better place because I made a difference in a child's life." ... Unknown Author
Note: Just before publishing this post I went over the Mendi's blog for a quick glance, usually I read her posts about 20 minutes after she publishes them. Funny, there right at the top was her most recent post which I had not yet read. It is all about Mr. Stinky Attitude and how she spent some time with him this past weekend. Some things just happen for a reason, no explanation.