Do you remember being excited for the new school year to start when you were a kid? I still love the promises of late August: a new pair of shoes, a new haircut, and new school supplies! But growing up, I also couldn’t wait to meet my new teacher. My teachers were such interesting people! My second grade teacher, Mrs. Schmoll, had been widowed for quite some time when I met her. Her husband died from a rattlesnake bite. As an adult, this strikes me as tragic, but as a seven year old, I thought that was so exotic! My third grade teacher, Mrs. Foster, was always on a diet. I remember her eating weird things at her desk, including mushrooms right from the can. Even as an eight year old, I knew, there had to be better ways to lose weight than that!
But my most unusual teacher was Mr. McGuire. Besides teaching fifth grade, he was a working blacksmith. And he restored antique cars. He and his wife drove around town in his and hers antique Hearses. You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty unusual! He was the first Democrat I ever met, and he decorated his grade book with a teacher’s union sticker. That was almost scandalous in my small dairy farming community in northeast Pennsylvania.
With me in Mr. McGuire’s class were two alpha girls. Both charismatic leaders, they started fighting. Before long they were trying to get all the other girls in the class on “their side”. I was getting very nervous, wondering how I could stay neutral and not end up getting beat up by one or the other. Fifth grade can be a scary place!
But before too long, Mr. McGuire intervened. He had that blacksmith look about him—red hot and ready to pound something. When he told every girl in the class to pick up her chair and follow him to the girls’ bathroom, we did. My first thought was, “Mr. McGuire, you’re not allowed in the girls’ bathroom!” But I was too intimidated to say anything! The second wave of panic hit me when he announced that we were going to sit in the bathroom together and talk about this problem among the girls in my class until we worked it out. Work out a problem? Face to face? By talking? I had never heard of anything like that before! I knew about aggression, and I knew about passivity. But I had never heard of assertiveness or conflict resolution. That day in the girls’ bathroom I learned there are other, more successful ways to work on problems than the methods I had previously experienced. By the end of the school year, those two girls who had previously been enemies chose each other as partners for our talent show. Peace and reconciliation had truly come to my class.
Thirty-five years later, I find myself reflecting on these special people that taxpayers and school boards call teachers. I don’t know. I think a better title might be angels. These people were divine messengers for me. From Mrs. Schmoll, I learned that all people are worthy of love and compassion. Mrs. Foster taught me that, even though I was having a lot of trouble learning to read, if I asked for help when I needed it, and I kept working hard, I could overcome my challenges. And Mr. McGuire taught me that great things can happen when we confront conflict head on, with courage and common sense. I can’t remember many of the facts I was taught about history or science, but I remember what my teachers taught me about how to live.
The thing is, how do you say thank you to an angel? The best I could do over the years is to try to live out what I’ve learned. More recently, I’ve been given the chance to share what they taught me with others. It’s a role I’m growing into, being a teacher. It feels really good to be able to pass onto others what I learned from the many great teachers who were not only interesting people, they took an interest in me. Now if I could just arrange to get summers off….
As we approach the start of another school year, I wish you the best of the season: a great new pair of shoes, the perfect haircut, some new pens and pencils—and gratitude for the lessons learned from the teachers and angels in our lives. Blessings!
Rev. Dorry Newcomer, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Pipersville, PA