Good morning. The weather seems to perch carelessly on the denuded branches of the pecan, oak and dogwood trees. There is a welcoming nip aimlessly floating in the air, enough to be kind to breathing and moving. There’s a crystal brightness to the darkness that is friendly to thinking and feeling. As I stepped through five miles of darkness this morning, I understood once again Keat’s herald and adoration of this delicious time of the year.
And do you know what I was thinking about this morning? Cheese cake and peanut butter. No, I am not with child! Why cheese cake? Well, this is the one time of the year–won’t tell you why–that my angelic Susan spends two days slaving into the late hours of the night to magically conjure up one of her celebrated cheese cakes, a culinery delight that any five-star restaurant would kill to serve, that causes you to hear the heavens ringing with an oratorio of triumphant jubiliation as it smoothly glides along your savoring palate. Yummy. Double yummy!!
I was thinking darkly in the dark of sticky, yukkie peanut butter because of a “thank you” card a student unexpectedly and secretly slipped into my hand as she left class yesterday. It read simply and deeply: “Just for caring and being there.” I’ll admit it. Tears swelled in my eyes and I breathed tightly. The card now rests with my other sacred objects of my teaching.
That card called up memories from the very distant past and reminded me humbly how powerful I am as a teacher.
Do you know how powerful you are? I asked that question of myself as I walked the pre-dawn street this morning. Now I ask it of all you good people.
That question is stirred by an incident that occured a while back. I really can’t let go of it. It started when a student, this student, who hadn’t been in class for almost two weeks suddenly reappeared.
“Where have you been?” I asked. I wanted to make some comment about him being a stealth member of his community, but looking into his eyes, I said to myself very quickly, “Can it.”
I thought I heard a tone of humiliation flood out from the single word. I took more care.
“You missed the Dr. Seuss project and tidbits.” I carefully didn’t color my words with recrimination or annoyance.
He whispered, “I know.”
There is was again, a deep resonance of disgrace.
I told myself to step lightly. “Do you think ‘I know’ is good enough to explain why you seemed to let both yourself and your community down?”
“I had to go home to get new medication,” she whispered in a tone of reluctance.
Then, it came. “I’m bi-polar and the medicine I was on wasn’t working any longer. I was going into long depressions and fits of crying and worse, and my parents told me I come to go home to get new medicine and have my doctor regulate it right.”
“No problem, then. Don’t worry about the project. We’ll work something out somehow during the rest of the semester,” I whispered back
“I was so embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone.”
“Why?” I asked as a sympathetic statement knowing full well the answer to that question. “If you have a broken bone, you don’t hesitate to go to a doctor and get it set in a cast. If your brain isn’t functioning as it should, you also go to a doctor for treatment. No difference.”
Of course, there is a difference, given so many people’s attitude towards such conditions, as in the next instant I learned.
“Tell that to one of my other professors,” he quietly said with eyes suddenly getting glassy. “When I told her about my sickness and why I was absent, she told me that I would get even more depressed when I saw my failing grade for missing a big test. I feel so small.”
I went cold. The veins in my neck began to bulge, the steam poured out of my ears, my muscles went taut, my face grimmaced. I could feel the nails of my finger dig deep into my palms. I took a silent deep breath.
“You’re not small,” I quietly assured her. “It’s that professor who is small, smaller than small!”
So damn uncaring, so insensitive, so inhuman. So pitiful. So medieval. Such a devaluing of two human beings. I guess having a Ph.D. doesn’t automatically mean you’re educated and smart.
Suddenly I had a flashback of Miss Satchel. I haven’t thought of that diminutive, sharp-featured, dried up runaway from an Egyptian sarcophagus in a long, long time.
It was an early November day of 1946 in the lunchroom of New York’s PS 160. I had just turned six. I remember the events of that day as vividly as if they had happened a few minutes ago. It had been a particularly harsh winter in wartorn Europe. There was near famine. Miss Satchel, my first grade teacher–on reflection I use the word “teacher” very loosely–always thundered in her eerily squeeky voice a pharonic “waste not” pronouncement as we filed into the lunchroom that we had to eat all of our food because of the starving children in Europe.
I always carried my lunch to school in a little silvery “trainman’s” lunch pail. Every day my mother placed my favorite lunch in it: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whitebread and an apple. I went to school this day. leaving the tenement apartment on Orchard Street not knowing it would be the day peanut butter and I would forever part.
This day, as usual, I entered the lunchroom, heard Miss Satchel’s command, got in line to buy a small box of milk. There at the end of the line stood Miss. Satchel, looking like an unwrapped 4,000 year old servant of Amon, telling each student, “You eat all your lunch! Remember the starving children in Europe.” When it came my turn, the “you” she hurled at me was particularly, as it always was, harsh and pentrating. All I could do was answer with a whispered and frightened submissive “yes, Miss Satchel.” Don’t mistake that reply as a respectful one. I assure you that it was all fear.
And boy, did Miss Satchel have it in for me. Being totally right brained, an unrepentant southpaw, I wouldn’t use my right hand during penmanship even under the pain of her constant, hard, often blood-drawing raps on my knuckles with a wooden ruler. With every swat, she angrily reminded me that she was doing it for my own good to drive a defiant, in her words, “Satan out of you!”
I guess her attempts at an exorcism didn’t work since my angelic Susan says constantly that there a little bit of the devil in me.
Anyway, back to this politically incorrect word of a “teacher.” On this particular day, I was not feeling very good. My bubba’s chicken soup had not worked its usual magic the evening before. I really didn’t have an appetite. I was too busy sniffling and listening to my stomach gurgle to be bothered with food. I half heartedly first ate my apple, core included as I always did and still do, painfully sipped all my milk, and inattentively nibbled at my sandwich like a mouse. About half of my sandwich was all I could stand. Knowing that Miss Satchel was standing guard I carefully hid the remainder of the sandwich in my lunch pail from those searching eyes as she drifted among the lunch tables. Just as I thought I had gotten past this scrawny sentinel, a bony hand reached over my shoulder, opened the pail, and pulled out the half-eaten sandwich.
I looked up in fright. Discovered. Silence. Glare. The next thing I knew she grabbed the hair at the nape of my neck, yanked my head back, picked up the sandwich, jammed it into my reluctant mouth angrily, slowing saying, “children….in….Europe….are….starving,” forced fed me, made me chew and swallow. I almost choked.
Peanut butter has not since passed my lips!!
So, thinking of Miss Satchel, this professor, that student, and myself, I say, “Take heed.” Want to know how powerful you are? Things go on in that classroom, words will be said, actions will be taken that will be burned, for better or for worse, into a person’s mind, heart, and soul for a lifetime.
Take heed. You can be miracle makers. You can help each and every student see that they need not be tomorrow what they are today. You can help each and every one of them see and reach for the unique potential that is within them.
Make it a good day.