- Vaguely heart-shaped, definitely ‘wreath-y’:
- A technique learned in Grade Six
I am lucky enough, at the College where I work, to have forward-thinking colleagues like Dr. Terry Herman and Ms. Susan Markel. Because of them, I am involved in a rich and rewarding community of practice. We meet on Wednesdays, our varied group of faculty and staff—full time, part time, program-specific, general education-related, new to the College and ‘seasoned’,—and we focus our discussion with our reading of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.
Susan, dynamic, creative, and organized, has unearthed a discussion guide that accompanies the book, and this week she proposed a few questions from that guide as sparks for our upcoming discussion.
One of the prompts is this: Think about your favorite teacher(s).
Favorite teachers, I mused when she first sent me the prompt, and was surprised at how hard it was to quickly respond. A name did not leap to mind; I put the challenge aside to let it percolate.
That night I took the little dog out for a walk. It was a crystal night, clear and cold, and as we wandered back from our neighborhood meander, I considered the wreath on my front door. Vaguely heart-shaped, its white, pink, and red tones shimmered in the light of the sconces on either side.
I made this wreath, part of my New Year’s recycle/get ‘er done self-challenge. I bent a wire hanger into a heart shape, and then I sliced and diced plastic bags—pink bags that our papers were delivered in, bread bags with red markings, white bags with red lettering from the supermarket. I cut them into strips about a half inch wide and approximately seven inches long, and then I tied them onto the heart-shaped hanger, pushing and shoving till they formed a fluffy, pom-pomming kind of effect.
It was a static-cling endeavor, leaving me vainly shaking off plastic scraps and the wreath so puffed it mostly lost its heart-shaped connection. But, determined to persevere, I filled every iota of hanger, fluffed the strange looking thing, and hooked it onto my front door. If nothing else, I thought, the colors were right for Valentine’s Day.
Walking home with the dog that night, I noticed the transparent plastic strips shimmering as they caught the light; the pink and the red stood out. It DID look like Valentine-y. And then I thought about where I’d learned this technique: in Mrs. McGraw’s sixth grade classroom.
That was back in (I think) academic year 1966-1967; I hadn’t thought about Mrs. McGraw or her class in years. Not since I used to tell my youngest son “Stories from Real Life,” and one of his favorites was called ‘The Sixth Graders Build a Rudolph Statue.’ The story, which could not deviate in the telling, and which I told hundreds of times, detailed how the long-ago sixth grade class was charged with making a statue of Rudolph the Reindeer for the holiday concert. The students could only work on the project when their classwork was all done, and they strove diligently for the honor.
Some built the chicken wire and wood frame, some ripped strips of newspaper—hundreds and hundreds of strips, —some mixed the messy mash paste, and some dipped and spread the newspapers onto the frame. There was the shaping; there was the drying; there was the painting; and there was the very exciting electrifying of the statue’s nose.
The story ended on concert night, with the sixth graders on stage, parting their ranks to reveal Rudolph, nose gloriously shining.
‘Tell me about how the sixth-graders built Rudolph,’ three year old Jim would demand, and I would comply…so many times that my actual memories are lost in the oft-repeated details of the story.
I taught sixth grade back when I was younger and more energetic—in fact, I have the distinction of having taught The Best Sixth Grade in the World, several years running—but it never occurred to me until right now how much work that Rudolph project must have been. Sixth grade boys with hammers and saws; sloppy messy buckets of stinky mash; stacks of newspapers and scraps of their ripped up aftermath. I suspect it must have taken weeks of work to get that reindeer completed.
Add to that the wreath project—each of us made a wreath from a hanger and green garbage bags cut into staticky strips that clung to clothes and desks and shoe bottoms; wow.
I remember Mrs. McGraw, with her curly gray hair pulled back in a bun of sorts, her flowered dresses with their tight bodices—Mrs. McGraw was an ample, matronly woman—and I don’t remember her getting flustered. There we were, racing through our work to get reindeer time—Mark, MJ, Debbie and Debby, Mike and Mike, Kathy, Donna, Christopher…—and there was Mrs. McGraw, calming us down, slowing us down, keeping us on track.
The reindeer was a huge success—just as it was in the story—and my mother liked the wreath so much she set us to making them at home, to the muttered “…garbage bag wreaths!” sneering scorn of older brothers.
It was an awesome Christmas at school, and at home, during the wonderful break, I was thrilled to get Mrs. McGraw’s handwritten thank you note in the mail—thanks for a gift I can no longer remember giving, but I can easily see the holly-bordered parchment paper on which she wrote, in flowing Palmer method script, in my mind’s eye. (I put that note in a scrapbook and kept it for years, until a flooded basement said ‘done’ to that particular box of mementoes.)
It was in Mrs. McGraw’s class that we debated communism; one side representing the United States and the other, the USSR. I was on the Russian side, and my teammates and I discovered the beauty of a ‘share the wealth equally’ philosophy—that and the chandeliers in Russian subways undergirded our choicest debate points.
The competition was conducted by debate team rules; I can’t remember which side won, although I suspect it was not me and my comrades. I have often thought, since then, that if a young long-haired hippie teacher had proposed that activity, s/he would have been met with shock and resistance. Motherly Mrs. McGraw with her calm matter-of-factness challenged her students to think critically without challenging the administration’s sense of propriety.
Mrs. McGraw said to me, offhandedly, “You’ll love studying English when you get to college,” and I knew without questioning that a college career was a decided part of my future.
In Mrs. McGraw’s class we wrote poetry, collated it into books, and created artistic covers. We hung them on the bulletin board for parent visitation night (which the students did NOT attend. I remember my mother coming home and saying to me, “We walked in the room, and your father said, ‘That’s Pam’s booklet,’ and he walked right to it.” He’d never seen me working on it, and it gave me a shiver of pride to think my work was that distinctive.)
Mrs. McGraw chose several of our poems, put them on a special overhead projector, and projected them onto big sheets of lined paper taped to the chalkboard. We were allowed to trace the letters in smelly, alcohol-based magic markers; the poems were decorated and hung in the school’s main hallway where everyone could see.
I decided to be a poet.
We had a student teacher in Mrs. McGraw’s class, a calm and lovely young woman named Miss Burkholder. She helped us with Math; she plunged into our projects. Mrs. McGraw never pulled rank and often allowed Miss B to lead classes. I remember wishing my oldest brother, then in college himself, would fall in love with Miss B and marry her.
I decided I’d be a teacher.
I was shocked when I overheard an adult conversation about Mrs. McGraw—I don’t remember who the adults talking were, but I remember what they said.
“Do you suppose they give her all the handicapped kids on purpose?” one asked.
And the other replied, “I don’t know, but she’s really good with them.”
Handicapped? I thought. Who in our class is handicapped?
Granted, we had Deb, who had a prosthetic leg, but Deb’s glare if you suggested she was handicapped would have sliced you into tiny, sad pieces. Deb was (and is) whip-smart, musically gifted, and a cracker-jack swimmer. David, whose hands and feet were different due to birth defects, did everything, played everything the rest of us did. Christopher, who was born with his heart on the wrong side, was sweet and funny. If he didn’t take part in our more athletic activities in quite the same way the rest of us did, he was always a part of things—the coach or the scorekeeper, maybe—integral, always; lesser, never.
Our classroom was on the second floor, up a flight of stairs, in an old-fashioned building that had no elevator. What a challenge that must have been for Mrs. McGraw, but under her tutelage we saw the gifts each student brought and not the deficits each of us carried.
We danced the Tinikling, banging together bamboo poles for the Spring Frolic as nimble classmates hopped in and out between them; we had our sixth grade graduation at a fancy, dress-up restaurant, and there was an account of it in the paper.
We all said, “We LIKE Mrs. McGraw,” but none of us said—at that point in time–, “This is a great teacher.” And we moved into junior high, a big, confusing place with fourteen homerooms and kids sorted by academic abilities, and the old classmates drifted and made new friends, and the brunt of the sixties bore down on us. Christopher died; we went to his funeral and knew that death could find us. One of our sixth grade classmate’s brothers was the first casualty of the Viet Nam War in our little city.
I could easily have gotten lost in those times, but underneath crazy risk-taking behaviors, there was grounding. When I think back, I think Mrs. McGraw helped provide that. She didn’t yell—the only time I remember her getting angry was when Michael pulled out the seat as Bridget went to sit down. Bridget crashed into the floor and was hurt.
Mrs. McGraw yelled at us to be careful, to be thoughtful; what were we thinking? And then there was a flurry of emergency care-taking with all of us frozen into shocked fright.
But when the class met again, I remember Mrs. McGraw telling us that Michael was such a good person, that this must be so difficult for him, to have a thoughtless act result in a semi-serious injury. I could see Michael blanching, and knew that this gentle expectation of good behavior was harder for him to hear than angry shouts of blame.
The calm and the expectation were Mrs. McGraw’s hallmarks, I think; and the expectations came back to me, to us. I did go to college; I did become a teacher; if my poetry only emerges for silly family birthday cards, well, I keep a book of poetry by my bedside. Its music rocks me to sleep some nights.
I remember having a horribly intense and self-conscious talk with a colleague after I’d started teaching myself. We are not so much imparters of wisdom, I said earnestly, as planters of seeds; we can only hope that the seeds we plant take root at some later date. My colleague was kind and did not laugh.
But—new teacher intensity aside—there is truth there. I look at the silly shaggy wreath hanging on my front door and think it’s a tangible symbol. Years later the things a great teacher imparts—the facts, the theory, the process,–will surface when needed. Mrs. McGraw was a great teacher, and though she’s been gone many years, there are many of us, still, who carry her lessons into our daily lives.