It is Teacher Appreciation Week and while I am struggling to remember if it is Bring Flowers Day or Sweet Treats Day, I have been thinking a lot about my former teachers and how I appreciate the lessons I learned in their classrooms.
My mother, of course, who taught me in the classroom and teaches me in life. Mr. Leigh, who was the only teacher who ever helped me make any sense of math. Unfortunately, my understanding of math peaked in his 8th grade class and I have never again seen that level of success with All of the Numbers and Other Mathery. There was Mr. Williams who is probably the most OCD person I have ever encountered, and made me the grammar snob I am today. (At work at least. I obviously play fast and loose with the rules of grammar here.) My high school AP teachers, Coach Murphy and Mrs. Watkins, whose classrooms became a home to those of us taking all two of the AP classes offered in those days and who gave me some of my best memories of high school. Mrs. Kapaun, who was a crotchety little old lady that everyone swore kept peppermints tucked under her wig and added a little kick to her morning coffee. (Unsubstantiated rumors of high school students here, folks.) I loved her as I love most crotchety old people. I think that’s because because I aspire to be one. She once told me that one of my essays restored her faith in humanity and I still remember the feeling I had when she said that. I am not saying that to brag about my mad sophomore year essay skillz, but to acknowledge that the words teachers say to us mean something, even as adults, and I appreciate all of those who spoke kindly and gently to me. (Even if they were explaining fractions to me again.)
There is one teacher, however, that I loved more than the others, aside from my mother, of course. I have mentioned before that I grew up surrounded by people who love to read. I spent many hours being read to on the front porch swing or a big arm chair or my favorite spot in the woods, so when I stepped into Susan Long’s classroom in the 5th grade, I already loved stories. She made me appreciate words.
One of the stories in our 5th grade reader was about a girl who lived in Mexico. She lived in a house with a courtyard in the middle and ground corn with her mother to make fresh tortillas. Mrs. Long asked us to close our eyes and listen to the words in the story. She would repeat words and softly ask us with her eyes closed, too, “Do you hear how beautiful they are? Listen. Marmalade. Tortilla.” And it was magic. When I closed my eyes and listened, I was in a world where words weren’t just static concepts on a page, but living, breathing things with beauty and power. I could almost taste the sweetness of the marmalade, could almost feel my fingers getting sticky from spreading it on a piece of freshly toasted bread. Words were no longer just there to convey a message or help us understand a concept, but were suddenly something that could make us see, smell, taste and touch.
We did a lot of writing in Mrs. Long’s class, too. As she passed out our stories on sea creatures one day, I saw her scrawl in red ink on my paper and was upset because I wanted her to think everything I did was only worthy of A pluses and gold stars. I certainly didn’t want to see that vibrant red ink. I was anxious to see what mistake I made and instead of a correction, I saw a notation that I should use a descriptive word like tenacious when I wrote about the sea creature clinging to the side of the boat. After I looked up “tenacious,” I wondered where in the world she thought I would have learned that word in the 5th grade and huffed and puffed about it for a while. I mean, I didn’t do anything wrong, I just didn’t use a big enough word? Ha! Ridiculous, I thought. So I pouted but I also started using my dictionary and thesaurus when I wrote, pushing myself to learn more words. I tested them out to see how they fit together with other words to construct a sentence infinitely better than the ones I could have come up with only using the vocabulary in my 5th grade reader. I don’t know if I ever admitted to myself at the time that that shock of red ink on my paper is what made me start thinking about word choice, but that single suggestion in the margins of my blue-lined paper challenged me. Are the embers hot? No, they’re smoldering. Is the wind chilly? No, it’s biting.
I may never be the next Joe Rowling or have a best seller, but because of Mrs. Long, I will sit at a keyboard and write. I will challenge myself to make my words better. I will read novels and appreciate how the authors use their words to make us feel like we have stepped into the story. I will read to my son and tell him to close his eyes while I whisper beautiful words to him. Marmalade is still my favorite.