Reluctant teacher grateful for chance

Published May 28, 2007

The gravely voiced older man on the phone paid no attention! Despite my adamant statements that teaching was definitely not for me, he persisted.

Now, as I'm approaching retirement, I am grateful that he ignored what I said.

Howard McNeese, superintendent of Greene County, Tenn., schools in 1973, knew little about me and I knew nothing about teaching. I had only been in school as a student, and was then working as a typing clerk. But a teacher friend told him about me, knowing Mr. McNeese needed more teachers. And he wouldn't take no for an answer.

Mr. McNeese opened the door to a magnificent journey of 34 years and I cannot imagine anywhere else I would have learned so much and been touched so deeply by students, their families and fellow educators.

* * *

It was September. A blanket of autumn colors covered the Cherokee National Forest surrounding Camp Creek Elementary, a school of about 320 students in grades kindergarten through eighth. The assignment was to co-teach in each grade, first through sixth. My learning was about to begin.

Billy Joe, a little blond with friendly hazel eyes, ran in the cool fall air, playing with his first-grade classmates. He dashed to me, opened his little hand, revealing a shirt button. I tucked it in his pocket telling him to take it home so mom could sew it back on. Billy Joe looked at me solidly and said, "I don't have a mom. I live at the home." He flashed a broad smile and raced back to play.

I stood speechless, staring, and quickly learned to make no assumptions about a child's family. Billy Joe, and about 15 others, lived at the church-run Baptist children's home next to our school. They were children I would never forget.

I sewed the button back on Billy Joe's shirt and we became special friends.

* * *

Three years of teaching reading to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and coaching cheerleading, girls basketball and track zipped by. A year of teaching kindergarten at a different school taught me another lesson.

John, a small wiry 5-year-old, struggled with learning and seldom could answer any question. It was spring and we were coloring a picture of a tiny duck carrying a parasol. Good vocabulary word, I thought, so I pronounced the word and asked who knew the meaning. I was thrilled when John's hand shot up.

"It's something you saw down trees with, " said John, thinking of the "power saw" his dad used.

I quickly learned that background knowledge is closely related to reading and vocabulary.

* * *

A few years later, after a move to Florida and the births of my son and daughter, I was teaching sixth grade at Schrader Elementary. It was Christmastime and stacked on my desk were many presents from students. At the end of the day, we sat together. I opened the packages and thanked each child.

Finally, only a folded sheet of paper remained. One of the boys, a struggling student that I'd recently learned was homeless, slid the paper to me and said, "Open mine."

I couldn't stop the tears as I hugged him tightly. The note read, "This is all I could get. Merry Christmas and I love you." Taped to the note was a nickel.

I've kept the note and nickel. It reminds me that no matter what walk of life, a child has dignity and the desire to be loving and giving. It also reminds me the greatest gifts are not always those bought with dollars and wrapped in pretty paper.

* * *

A year later a mom arrived on the first day of school with her fifth-grade son.

Friendly and direct, he told me he wanted to be president of the United States. He was an extremely motivated child and I often had to tighten the reins on him. Agreeable and intensely driven, with his mom's guidance, he eagerly tried new things. At the year's end, he gave me a simple jar with cookies he had baked. For quarter of a century - as five children passed through my home - I have guarded that cookie jar on my kitchen counter. For the same length of time I have cherished his friendship.

In this rare instance, a teacher glimpses the end product of teaching. That student, a Hudson High and University of Florida graduate, is now Dr. Shawn Larson and will soon complete his degree in general surgery residency with a pediatric surgery fellowship to follow at the University of South Florida. He is one of the most outstanding people I know and my life is greatly enriched by the lifelong friendship that started when he was 10 years old.

For me, as for all teachers who spend many years in a classroom, the stories are endless. I remember a fifth-grade bully who slipped back to my room and expressed his sorrow that my kitty died. There was the sobbing child I held in my arms as his mother lay in a coffin nearby.

I recall the third-grade girl whose mother dropped in and left a half gallon of ice cream to feed 26 children on her daughter's birthday. No bowls, no spoons, just one carton of ice cream and a child's pained face. At lunch, I dashed for the nearest store, picked up more ice cream, bowls, spoons and some birthday napkins. Relief swept over the child's face and, at the day's end, I found a note on my desk saying, "What would I ever do without you?" It was signed by the child.

I have learned that teaching gives us sleepless nights when we worry about a child in an abusive home; requires boundless patience when a very active child is our "buddy for the day" on a field trip; and instills a keen sense of humor such as when a young mother brought in a new baby for "show and tell" and a small child piped up, "Can we pet it?"

Teaching provides unlimited possibilities to grow as we address the needs of an autistic child who loves shoelaces and anything purple; struggle to figure out why a child still can't read after three years of instruction; and thrill at that moment when a child eagerly says "I got it!"

Gail Diederich, a reading teacher at Longleaf Elementary, finished her teaching career last week. She will continue her work as the Hometown Pasco coordinator for the east/central edition of the Pasco Times. She also plans to do some freelance writing and editing, provide consulting for home-school parents and finish a book on her teaching experiences.