This sophomore-year incident popped into my mind this week when I heard that Ms. Spinney had died. And from that one memory, my thoughts wandered to other teachers I remember from my years of schooling, long ago as they sometimes seem. I couldn’t tell you the name of every grade school or high school teacher or college professor I ever had – or every specific lesson I learned from them – but I remember many of them. Mostly the Good Ones.
I remember Mrs. Forsythe from first grade and that I was happy my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Petersen, moved on with me to teach my third-grade class, too. I remember being nervous to start at a new school in sixth grade, when my Hastings School class would merge with the Fales School kids.
I remember Mrs. Cowles teaching us The Preposition Song in English class that year. Three decades later, I can bust out all the prepositions – alphabetically and to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy – whenever I feel in danger of ending a sentence with a preposition. We also learned to diagram sentences with Mrs. Cowles – do kids even do that anymore? – and, when we really caught onto something, she’d tell us, “Now you’re cooking with gas!”
In high school, in a classroom with an impressive collection of wind-up toys, Mr. Sharpe lit the writing fire in me during creative writing class. In Mr. Kasierski’s biology class I learned to dissect once-living beings (ick), but also to look closely at the natural world, to notice the details there among still-alive things.
Mr. Mullen introduced us to classic American literature. I couldn’t tell you every book we were assigned to read that year, but I still have the journals we had to keep as part of our classwork. And I can picture Mr. Mullen acting out the scene in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” when Stanley leans back, full of angst, and hollers, “Stellllaaaaaa!”
Ms. Spinney walked us through contemporary history. By the time our class arrived, she’d already been teaching for more than 30 years. History, of course, had shifted in those decades – although I imagine the challenges of engaging a group of teenagers in what they likely considered ancient history remained similar through the years.
I don’t remember, all these years later, which exact periods or topics we covered. I do remember Ms. Spinney using Billy Joel’s newly (in 1989) released song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as a lesson. If you don’t remember the lyrics – or have never heard it – look it up. It offered a timeline outside of, but related to, our stagnant textbooks. I’ve always thought that was an ingenious bit of teaching.
Miss Spinney retired many years ago, but in the town where she grew up and lived her whole life, she remained involved in mentoring young people through some of the challenges of school and adolescence. She was one of the Good Ones – even if she did give me one of the two detentions I earned in four years of high school. (I never flubbed and chewed gum in her class again.)
I think teaching is probably harder work than anyone who has never been a teacher realizes. It’s a big responsibility to have a hand in shaping young minds. But what a tradeoff, to know that if you do it right – if you’re one of the Good Ones – a few of the lessons you’ve shared along the way might just come happily to some former student’s mind many years down the road, many miles from the classroom.