From my collection of personal reminiscences on the great teachers I’ve had
It was 1980 and the summer was gone and I was heading to my first day of school in a new city. I didn’t realize until years later the teacher waiting for me in that fourth grade classroom would have a dramatic impact on me that has continued into adulthood.
What I knew then was the day was not going well and would get worse following our move from California.
My dad had gotten a promotion to manager of the grocery store chain he worked for and our family was moving from Vacaville, California, a little city of about 23,000 at the time off of highway 80. Vacaville was a great place for a kid. My brother and I and our friends could ride our bikes across town, play in creeks and orchards, stay out from sun up to sun down playing and never worry about anything bad happening. It was the only place I knew. It was where all my friends were. It was where my school was.
Now, I was in Reno, Nevada, a city more than four times the size of Vacaville and I was heading to a school I had never seen and afterwards to a house I had never slept in. I had a cold, or was suffering from allergies, I’m not sure which.
That first night here, we slept in the old Mark Twain Motel on Virginia Street that had looked like it would be an adventure, as those one-story motor inns often seemed to promise. But instead, it was just a boring old place with a drained pool, a plain room and a really old TV that I don’t think worked.
In the morning I woke up sniffling with a runny nose and mom loaded me up with tissues. As a family, we drove to a restaurant called Uncle John’s. Again, it looked like a great place, and probably was, but the cold I had made everything taste bland and after eating there I had a stomach ache.
My Dad went off to his job and mom took my older brother and I to school. I can’t remember if my older brother John got dropped off first or not, he was going to middle school. Either way, it meant I would be completely on my own, just as he was.
When we got to my new school, the old Brown Elementary on Virginia Street near the road to Virginia City, we went into the office, where I realized two things; We were late and this was the second day of school.
Crud, I thought. If I had been there the first day then I wouldn’t stick out so much. Everyone is new on the first day of school. Now, it was just me who was new.
Someone walked me down the hall to my fourth grade class and I went inside. It was full, probably 30 kids in there. The teacher, Ms. Bachtell, introduced herself to me and told me where to sit.
She was short with dark hair and was wearing a plain dress. She went over the class rules.
Typical rules, no gum chewing, raise your hand, and one that stood out to me in particular, because I thought it was strange that this would need to be set down as a rule, I was not to throw things at the garbage can from across the room, but was to walk up and drop my trash in it.
My nose wouldn’t stop running and I felt terrible and alone. I just wanted to put my head down and hope people weren’t staring at me.
I took my seat sure that every kid in there was sizing me up and judging me. I did not imagine they were friendly.
Ms. Bachtell picked up her lesson which had been interrupted by my arrival. She was talking about lines of longitude and latitude. It seemed to be a review of yesterday’s lesson as she asked, “who remembers which lines run horizontal on the globe and which run vertical?”
To my surprise she picked me to answer, “What are lines of latitude?
“I don’t know,” I said, probably a little surlier than I should have.
She smiled. “There are two choices. Can you guess?”
“I said, I don’t know,” more firmly.
“Just take a guess,” she encouraged.
“Vertical,” I said.
“No,” she replied. “So what are lines of latitude?”
“I told you I don’t know,” I said.
“Yes you do,” she said encouragingly.
But I dug in. I had already made a fool of myself getting the answer wrong. I wasn’t going to answer again, even though I should have realized that, with only two possible answers and already having eliminated one as wrong, I should have known it was other. You see, to me, it just seemed unfair. The other kids had received instruction on this stuff. It was all new to me and all I wanted was to just get through the day without further embarrassment. I boiled over.
“I DON’T KNOW!” I yelled. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”
I probably slipped in a curse word, but I’m not sure.
She was immediately taken aback and the class was dead silent as the other children watched uncomfortably my confrontation.
“Go to the office,” she told me, calmly. “Fine,” I said, getting up with a tissue in my hand. I threw it down on the floor. “And hell if I’m picking that up.”
She got on the phone and called down to the office as I walked to it.
Inside, I got to meet the principal. He had a strange office. It seemed more like a storage room in a warehouse than a principal’s office. I, unfortunately, was familiar with principals’ offices, having been sent to it on more than one occasion in Vacaville.
Sitting there in the principal’s office in front of his cluttered desk, I was recalcitrant, which of course didn’t help the situation.
The principal was telling me he couldn’t accept that kind of behavior, all logical and fair things to say, really. But when I didn’t react or apologize, he grew angry, drew a paddle out of his desk and held it up. He had gone nuclear, believing that this was the only way to reach me.
It was wooden, maybe a foot and a half long and had holes drilled in it.
“If you get sent back here again, I’m going to use this on you,” he said and then proceeded to bang the paddle against the side of his desk. Probably trying to get a reaction out of me.
But I still didn’t react. The threat had no impact on me and he realized it.
“Why aren’t you scared?” he asked.
“Because you need my dad’s permission to hit me with that paddle,” I said calmly, still slouching in the chair. “And I know he hasn’t given you that permission. So, if you hit me with it, you’ll have to answer to him and he’s a Vietnam Veteran.”
I don’t exactly remember how the principal took this. He didn’t yell at me, he just said, “Go back to class and stay out of trouble,”
That was wishful thinking on his part. I would have to come to his office at least two more times during the that year, but he never showed me that paddle again and, he didn’t call my parents about it. Which was good for me, because I would have been in a lot of trouble.
Back in class, Mrs. Bachtell didn’t mention the incident. Not that day. Not ever. There was no further reprimand or reminder to behave. It was like that on the other two times I got sent to the principal’s office as well. Though they were for less serious infractions than the first. And this is what was extraordinary about her.
She didn’t hold it against me. Each day I got to start over. Each day was a new one and a new chance to be the kid she expected me to be. She let me make mistakes, even very serious ones, but she continued to teach me and treated me kindly. She was a good teacher. I enjoyed her assignments, especially the reading which required book reports, though at the time I wouldn’t admit it to my friends. My math improved and most importantly, I didn’t worry that teachers would always think I was a trouble maker. My mistakes in fourth grade didn’t follow me from class to class and hang over me for the rest of my academic career in Reno schools.
Slowly I realized over the years what she had done for me was truly extraordinary and the mark of a great teacher. And I know this because I saw what can happen when teachers do hold grudges, do label little kids. I saw friends in high school who were not so lucky. They struggled with being branded trouble makers or the even worse tag of being dim. And that impacted them and their expectations of what they could do in school. (I will say most of them overcame this in adulthood and realized they were in fact smart and capable. Human spirit in action indeed.)
All this was really driven home to me one day in Connecticut.
Now don’t laugh at this, but for a while, I was an education reporter in the Constitution State and as such I attended a conference for incoming high school freshman hosted by some of the teachers. The conference was designed to give middle school students a taste of high school and prepare them for the transition. Kind of give them tips.
During the conference, one of the teachers leading it made a remark that to be honest scared the hell out of me.
She asked the students what they think would happen if they came to class and used their cell phones, wore their hats and talked back to the teacher.
One of the kids rightly said they’d get in trouble.
But the teacher added this, “And your teacher won’t like you, because you’re rude. Teachers are people too and they will always remember how you treated them and they will hold it against you. They will be less likely to help you when you have a problem.”
I was shocked by this open admission. And I realized just how much of a gift it was to have Mrs. Bachtell as a teacher.
She could have gone that way, branded me as a trouble maker and written me off. But she didn’t. She was an adult. She saw the good in kids, but wasn’t blind to their mistakes and disciplined them. But when she did discipline that was the end of it. She didn’t keep reminding me or others of those past mistakes. I try to remember this lesson today as a parent and as a supervisor at my current job and even as just an adult interacting with others.
You know, let people start over. Let it be a new day for them the next time.