Monthly Archives: April 2017

I’d Like to Thank my Teacher

17858438_10211453422783959_961153226_oI live in small-town South Georgia, where we have to drive long distances to see quality movies. In the 1980s, my childhood friend Laura’s cultured mother drove her daughters to Jacksonville, Florida, monthly, where they would watch three movies in succession, then report back to us.

Though lacking Laura’s background, I have always watched the Oscars. I like the glamour, the genuine emotion, the chance to see another, far-away world.

When the joyous winners leap up the steps, I inevitably weep, thinking of their teachers.  The men and women who tried to corral their energetic charges while simultaneously leaving their spirits intact; who, remembering daily what it was like to be young, gave guidance with dignity and compassion; who bought snacks when these now-tuxedo-clad adults were hungry youngsters; who encouraged and cajoled during quick hallway conferences, saying things like, “Really, Casey, you have amazing talent. No, I’m not just saying that to be nice.”

I think of these teachers, who have sown much and are too often forgotten. I imagine them, in the weeks before the Oscars, sitting at the beauty parlor saying things like, “Oh, you know, Emma Stone was in my English class. Sweet, sweet girl.” I picture them putting their charges’ names on Sunday School prayer lists; carefully cutting out Oscar newspaper articles; telling their current students, “Viggo hated history, too, but he studied and did well, and Sunday night, 40 million people are going to watch him on TV.”

I picture these teachers in their frayed recliners and modest homes, DVRs carefully set, their forewarned children and spouses giving them a wide berth because Mom is watching one of her favorite all-time kids. 

I can hear the screams when their favorite’s name is called. I see them dancing, arms in the air, yelling, “He did it! He did it!” and cackling with delight.

For a moment, these exultant educators forget the sorrows that come with teaching, all of the lack and sacrifice. For this moment, they are rich. They have done it. They have changed a life, pushed one child past the most awesome of finish lines.

Tonight, when Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, as the camera rose high behind him and the clapping throng rose to their feet, Mr. Ali stood tall and confident at centerstage. I felt tears forming. His teachers, seeing this.

And then, Mr. Ali spoke. In the first speech of Hollywood’s most important night, the first people he thanked were teachers. “I want to thank my teachers, my professors . . .I had so many wonderful teachers. Zelda Fichandler, Ron Van Lieu, Ken Washington.”

He spoke their names. He felt their weight. In his acknowledgement of those who unknowingly readied him for a long-distant February night, Mr. Ali reminded us all to remember that we do not reach our goals alone.

As he stood onstage, one man speaking directly to millions, Mr. Ali recalled the men and women who helped him find his voice.

He thanked them first; he thanked them clearly.

It was, perhaps, surprising: teachers are not friends. Not family. But sometimes, they are the first to see the spark–to train pupils how to heft it, to convince them that they are worthy to carry it.

And so, while the world sees only the now-tuxedoed glory, fully ablaze, it is fitting to shout the names of those who remember those long-past days–

The days before the fire.





I’m a Teacher, and I Don’t Want to Die With Your Child in a Tornado

Dave Sanders was the first teacher to haunt me. I would wager that, although you have forgotten him, many teachers could instantly tell you, “He died in Columbine. His students held up his pictures of his family members as he bled out on the floor.”

liviuLiviu Librescu’s name cannot be spoken with enough reverence: a Holocaust survivor, this professor chose to hold his Virginia Tech classroom’s door shut so his students could escape the raging gunman on the other side. Librescu died.

27 year-old Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto hid her small students in a cabinet and then faced down gunman Adam Lanza, telling him her kids were in the gym. Her students lived; their teacher died.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan was pregnant when she heroically shielded her students with her body in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Seven of her twenty kids died. 35%. Gone.

I can tell you about these teachers–and others like them–because I, too, am a teacher. Like bankers, who keep up with new federal regulations, and chefs, who learn about the latest food trends, teachers are constantly educated, too. We don’t wile away our days making cutsey bulletin boards and singing songs about friendship: we do real work.

And a large part of that work is making sure your children are safe. And so we continually think about what we would be willing to sacrifice for your child.

Before Liviu Librescu’s death in 2007, very few American classrooms could be locked from the inside. Teachers, during lockdowns, had to go out into the hall and lock their classroom doors. Most of us who taught before 2007 did this–grabbed our keys at the principal’s urgent voice, dashed into the hall as quickly as possible, hurriedly locked our doors, and ducked back in, saying grateful prayers that we were okay, having done our required duties–and kept your children safe.

My husband, also a teacher, was pulled from his classroom several years ago and told, “There’s been a bomb threat . . . look around for bombs.” Your children? Safe.

At the same school, he was also told that, if there was a fire, he was to “go deep into the building to see if any children were left inside.” As a teacher–not a firefighter–he was expected to display this level of de facto heroism. To keep your children safe.

llI have hidden my autistic elementary school students in a bathroom while an angry man with a weapon roamed the campus. I have had a rib broken and rotator cuff torn by a student. I have been threatened by an angry, belt-wielding parent as I stepped between her and her child. I have dashed out of a prom carrying burning decorations. I have been brave for your kids.

Right now, though, I’m not being brave. I’m at home eating pimento cheese on Ritz crackers in my blue polka-dotted pajamas. School was called off early today because there was a chance of tornadic activity. So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.

That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their Homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their Promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the teddy bears and the Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.

I have been. I am.

For those of you who have not been, imagine this: you are single, but have a large brick home, and you are hosting a spend the night party for your son, Johnny. He has invited thirty friends, and they all said yes. Everyone is coming. You have assembled a bouncy-house, pre-ordered the pizza, and iced the homemade Power Rangers cake. You’ve rented a party bus to transport them to Chucky Cheese for a night of fun. Imagine, then, just fifteen hours before, you hear that a squall line with 60 MPH winds, large hail, thunderstorms, and perhaps tornadoes too, is likely headed your way.

Your next move, of course, is to cancel the party.

It’s a no brainer. If parents insisted on sending their kids before the storm hit, you would lock the doors and hide. You would not let those kids in your house because they might get hurt. You would cancel the bus and forfeit the deposit because who wants to be on a bus with children in a tornado??? Who would chance that? Who would make that gamble?

As a party host, you would assess the risk–you would think about your liability; you would consider how many things could go wrong. You would choose the wiser path.

Sure, a wind shift could result in you eating hypothetical cake alone under a sunny sky while people Facebooked about how foolish you were. However, the alternative hypothetical, with your son surrounded by seven of his best friends’ bodies and people still Facebooking about your idiocy–well, that’s too much to bear.

So, know this: of all the heroic teachers listed above–Sanders, Librescu, Soto, and Doan–only Doan could have possibly been spared her trauma. Her school system likely had two hours’ notice before the EF5 tornado flattened Plaza Towers Elementary.  They stayed.

I’m grateful I didn’t have to stay at work today in potentially dangerous conditions. Because I already knew about the pregnant teacher who tried to keep her students safe during a tornado.

Who broke her back and sternum.

Who lost seven students.

Who holds a baby in her arms who is named for the student who died–whom she felt die–beneath her palm as they lay together, crushed in the rubble.

Most teachers, like me, already knew about her. Now, you do.

Please, tell me again about how this weather day hurt you.