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Terry Marotta: Thank a teacher

Terry Marotta

Last weekend I read “Letters to a Young Teacher,” by Jonathan Kozol, who for 40 years has been writing about our public schools, where, as he rightly says, the real work of democracy is done.

In his introduction he salutes the rookie teacher he calls Francesca for the kindness she is showing toward the little boy Arturo who will clearly demand much of her attention in the year ahead. He says that in doing this she has assured him that for all the months to come before June he will be “surrounded by a veil of tenderness and beauty.”

I taught for only seven years at the start of my working life but I find that Mr. Kozol’s words exactly describe the magic I saw happen in a classroom: The way the students slowly come to trust that you will neither practice nor tolerate any sort of mockery, and deal fairly with them at every turn. The way they then open their hearts and real learning commences.

I wanted to call him up on the phone, so moved was I by his words.

He says the “pundits” in their citadels have lost sight of the realities of schoolchildren, especially the youngest ones, with “their squirmy bodies and their vulnerable temperaments, their broken pencil-points and their upturned faces when the teacher comes and leans down by their desk to see why they are crying.”

He says with their emphasis on “outcomes,” the bureaucrats seem to have forgotten about these things: the occasional tears and the “sometimes uncontrollable, contagious jubilation” that make up the daily life for a real teacher and her students.

All this was Sunday morning.

Sunday afternoon I heard a high school History teacher address my town’s class of graduating seniors.

When Suzanne Bolles walked toward the podium it was to the strains of “American Woman,” the Number One “hit” when she was graduating from high school in 1970.

She took a few minutes to name some of the extraordinary events of that era.

She spoke of the remarkable work she did summers between her years at Wellesley College.

She referred matter-of-factly to having been hit by a car at age seven and left for dead; to having confronted cancer not once but twice in her life. “We cannot control what happens to us” in this life,” she said. “We can only control how we respond.”

And then Mrs. Bolles had the class do an exercise:

“Anyone who has had me for three years, stand up," she said. Some 15 or 20 kids rose.

“Stay standing. Now anyone who has had me for two years.” Many more rose.

“Now stand if you have had me for just one year or even one semester.” It looked as if almost all the graduates were on their feet.

“Eleven of you still owe me homework,” she joked.

Then she asked them to answer a few questions to see if they really did ‘deserved’ the diploma.

One was about power and one was about historical causes. (“In history we have causes and…?”

“Consequences!” they called out.)

And finally: “In everything we do we strive for…?”

“Excellence!” they shouted.

They knew her. They knew what she stood for.

She closed by saying she chose teaching for her life’s work because it has at its heart the practice of human kindness, and there it was for me again: the image of the caring adult leaning down to a desk, to a young and sometimes troubled upturned face.                                                                                                                   

Make a difference today if you can. Seek out a teacher and express your thanks.

Write to Terry at terrymaarotta@verizon.net or P.O. Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. See her blog Exit Only at www.terrymarotta.wordpress.com to read more or leave a comment.