How old were you before you had a nightmare in place of a teacher? And while we’re at it, how long did it take you to realize that teachers could love their jobs?
I ask because I had an interesting chat with a coworker this morning, one of those cabbages-and-kings meandering sorts of discussions, and we got around to the topic of elementary school teachers. She was a little shocked when I told her that I was in the fourth grade before I had a teacher who really loved her job and let us know it. Mrs. Paolucci was interesting and fun without being goofy, and I looked forward to school each day.
Before then? Not so much.
My kindergarten teacher is a vague memory for me; I think she was benevolent enough, and I still have the little red clay sheep Christmas ornament she gave me that year. Mrs. Jackson died a few years later, before I was old enough to go back for a nostalgic visit.
First grade, I had Mrs. Kittle. She was old school in the most literal sense of the phrase: she was elderly, and she was a strict disciplinarian without an abundance of warmth and charmth. I remember that many of my classmates thought she was mean, but then many of my classmates were typical spastic first-graders who found themselves pinned to the desk by a stern glare a time or two. I was mousy and a bookworm, a kid who devoured the SQR books for fun and never, ever ran in the hallways or cheated on a spelling test. (Don’t mistake this for a profusion of virtue; I was just terrified of getting in trouble, which is particularly amusing because I never actually got in trouble and therefore had no idea what I was afraid of.) She also died a few years later.
In second grade, there was Mrs. Lucak, possibly spelled wrong but phonetically correct. She was another forgettable teacher, neither inspiring nor scary. She always seemed sort of frazzled and overwhelmed – just exactly the way I would feel if plunked down in a room full of seven-year-olds and told to educate them, though presumably she had a measure of choice in her profession. She died a few years later… I swear I had nothing to do with this disturbing trend.
Then there came third grade. Mrs. Guzyk. Maybe she’s the nicest woman on the planet; maybe she’s an incisive interpreter of the eight-year-old psyche and practiced on the cutting edge of the field. She scared the crap out of me. I remember her as always seeming angry, a cold, stern anger that would wilt my spine before ever entering the classroom. She was loud, even strident, and intimidating, and strict.
Before the end of the first month, I was no longer raising my hand to answer every question and eagerly volunteering to erase the chalkboards. Let’s be fair, here: if I was anything as intense and in-your-face as my daughter is, then I probably needed to be knocked down a few notches, and nobody likes a teacher’s pet. But in her presence, I didn’t just slip from teacher’s pet to regular third-grader, I slumped into a cycle of anxiety and fear that had me faking illness to try to stay home from school.
And then came the ultimate betrayal, the day which cemented her place upon my carved-in-stone shit list for life. One day, after lunch, I came back to my desk, only to be called to the front of the room. And there, while the several-dozen beady little eyes of my classmates bored holes in the back of my skull, she accused me of writing on the bathroom walls.
I was appalled. Remember my fear of getting in trouble? Yeah, I wasn’t a graffiti artist in the making; I barely dared go to the bathroom during the school day in the first place, out of fear that I might miss some crucial direction in the classroom. I walked home from school at that time, and my parents were used to a vaguely Kate-shaped blur as I rushed directly down the hall because I hadn’t gone to the bathroom all day. And even if I had used the facilities, I wasn’t bringing writing utensils with me.
So, unjustly accused, and then denied any chance of defending myself. She sent me to the principal’s office,to which I had to ask for directions and who had to ask my name twice because I’d never been there before. I don’t remember if I received a detention or other punishment for it, and indeed I don’t remember much else from that school year. Except openly fearing and despising Mrs. Guzyk, terrified of her capriciousness and never finding out why she believed I would do such a thing in the first place.
Third grade was not a good year.
Then came fourth grade. In a new building, because the elementary schools went kindergarten through third grade and then fourth through sixth, and there was Mrs. Paolucci. And she smiled, and danced, and sang silly songs to help us remember how to spell encyclopedia (I just learned that I still sing it in my head when I type it out). And the powers that be recognized that the fact that I was reading at a high school level meant that perhaps I could withstand some extra challenges in my day, and I started to attend an extra class – is Project SPARK a national thing or just that school district? – and I started to actively enjoy school.
And it was all very interesting, this walk down Memory Lane, and made me wonder what other people’s experiences were like. Are most elementary teachers a little old, a little tired, a little frazzled, or straight-up mean, or was I peculiarly blessed in that regard? Maybe everybody else had cheerful, smiley teachers right from the start, and there was just an odd collection of burnout right in one little school in upstate New York.