Or… The Path to My 40-Year Career in Education
In the thank you speech I gave at my retirement party, I made reference to my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Gillespie. Hopefully, you had one teacher who didn’t just teach you something but made a real difference in your life. Mrs. Gillespie was that teacher for me.
In my case, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school. Mrs. Gillespie was the ideal warm, caring teacher who set high standards for her students and I looked forward to going to school every day to meet the challenge.
For English, we used a very thick literature anthology. This is where I first remember reading Poe’s “Raven”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” among other classics. For some reason, I wanted to have a copy of that book at home. Somehow Mrs. Gillespie arranged for me to purchase one because back then, no parent could just order a school textbook. I remember the day it arrived in the mail and how much I cherished having that book which, I think, may have even been a teacher’s edition.
Mrs. Gillespie might have been one of the original project-based teachers without ever knowing it. She was very innovative with her assignments which not only benefited her students but herself as well. At the beginning of the year, she announced that we would all be writing a major research paper called a “specialty”. We could choose any topic, but it should be one that we were especially interested in as we would be doing extensive research about it. I don’t know how I came up with this topic, but I remember it didn’t take me too long to decide on “The Beginning and Development of Writing”. What?! Are you kidding… this is the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations. But did Mrs. Gillespie stop me? Not for a second! She knew how to let me be the studious school girl I loved to be and tackle the whole darn thing. When she offered up dates for our presentations to the class, I picked January because, of course, that would allow me all of Christmas break to finish working on it. Needless to say, I never made that strategical mistake again. I spent just about every day during vacation that year in the local library.
Aside from writing the paper, there were several other tasks involved. There was a long counter at the back of the room — the kind with a sink in it and a bulletin board above it that we are all familiar with. After all, schools haven’t changed that much in the last 50 years. You were responsible for setting up a complete display on the counter and decorating the bulletin board to enhance your project. My bulletin board had examples of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and many other symbols and types of writing and communication. My display included dioramas of cavemen. This was the era of those cute little troll dolls with all that long hair and I owned several. I grew up watching the Flintstones so I had endless inspiration for their costumes. This is actually where my sewing skills began. My trolls had fabulous felt wardrobes replete with hats and other accessories. It was a pretty impressive display though not historically accurate as the cavemen were surrounded by clay dinosaurs I created — a detail I don’t believe was ever addressed. Probably a savvy move on Mrs. Gillespie’s part.
Every Friday afternoon, it was one student’s turn to give his/her presentation. The desks were pushed aside and the chairs were lined up in rows to form an audience in front of the back counter. The principal showed up every week to listen to the entire presentation as did a photographer from the local newspaper. You read your paper which was expected to be fairly well memorized and used chart paper to explain various aspects of your report. In addition, you had to create a test for the class which you passed out and collected at the end. Then, of course, you had to grade it. This was truly the first lesson I ever taught. As you can see, Mrs. Gillespie had her Friday’s nailed. Smart woman!
I never considered becoming a teacher until I was 16 and planning for college, but I think the seed was certainly planted with this experience. The fact that I can so clearly remember it 50 years later speaks volumes about the value of the project and the teacher who assigned it.
Toward the end of our 6th grade year, we visited the junior high for orientation. Upon returning, we had to choose an elective for 7th grade. I had only two options — Home Ec or Spanish. I asked Mrs. Gillespie about this and she said, “You can learn that Home Ec stuff later on your own. You should take Spanish.” So I did and eventually discovered my passion for languages. Little did she know that she set the course of my life with that small but sage piece of advice.
Mrs. Gillespie also helped me write a graduation speech that year. It was called, “Spring is a New Beginning” inspired by a small book of the same title written and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund that was very popular at the time. Being the shy introvert that I was, I didn’t really want to give this speech in front of a whole auditorium of parents and relatives, but she insisted I was the one for the job. She had me practice my speech (which I still have on a set of index cards) over and over with her and gave me the confidence and courage to get through it. Once I get past my medical treatments and on a path to stabilizing my health, spring will definitely be a new beginning for me this year and I will probably be thinking about Mrs. Gillespie and that little inspirational book.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see Mrs. Gillespie again and tell her how much she had contributed to my outcome or to thank her for being “that” teacher who made all the difference. Though I did find a thank you card she wrote to me for a gift (silver sugar tongs… must have been a thing then) my mom and I gave her at the end of the school year so obviously we made an effort to express our appreciation for all her work at that time. She wrote some very kind words about me that still touch me all these years later. It reminds me that someone important thought I was special even at the age of 11.
I had the privilege of having a few students who came back to visit throughout the years and tell me that I made a significant difference in their lives in some way. It was usually not the student I would have expected nor for the reason I would have imagined. As a teacher, unbeknownst to you, you may say or do the smallest thing that could inspire the path of a student’s entire life. That’s really powerful. It’s not so much about the subject you teach or even how you teach it, but the person you see, accept, and help grow. So when your technology doesn’t work or you just can’t get on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest educational trend, that’s not really important — how you interact with your students is what counts. You never know where it may lead them. Look where it led me!
How wonderful! Half a country away I had a very similar experience with my middle school English teacher, Mrs. Edith Kasbeer. She was a diminutive powerhouse of a woman who struck abject fear into most of her students. To me she opened the doors to great literature. If I close my eyes I can picture her at the front of the room reading a Tale of Two Cities bringing to life Madame Defarge. (No matter how carefully crafted a performance might be, no actress will ever replace Mrs. Kasbeer in my mind.)
Mrs. Kasbeer took a lonely new student and made her the editor of the school newspaper, pushing her to step out and meet new classmates and learn about our tiny community. She seemed to have had an endless supply of red pens. “There are standards, my dear, that MUST be met!” She set in motion my love of communication that exists to this day.
Years later I became an editor of a national publication. I sent my first issue to Mrs. Kasbeer along with a thank you note telling her how greatly I appreciated her influence in my life. She had retired shortly after I graduated to high school and moved on to yet another new school in another new town. I was not sure she would recall one student out of so many in her long career, or even if she would receive my package, but I hoped she would. Months went by. I got so swept up in my new busy life that I forgot about the package. I suppose I thought she might have passed away and would never know how grateful I was to her. And then it came – a manila envelope with the most beautiful cursive writing addressed to Madam Editor. The letter inside was so sweet. She remembered me, as evidenced by the anecdotes she included about articles I had written for her. She was happy for me too, but she had a few suggestions she hoped I would take to heart. Included in her envelope was my magazine with a critique on almost every page – in vivid red. What a wonderful lady. I treasure that keepsake.
How fortunate we were to have such incredible teachers in our lives. I have no doubt that you have made Mrs. Gillespie proud many times over and that your students were blessed to have had you in their lives.
Great story, Robin. So glad to hear you also had an inspiring experience. This is the vital part of teaching few people understand or see. Gotta love those red pens!!