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Oddchester: Don’t underestimate the importance of teachers

December 5, 2018

Sometimes, we don’t appreciate the importance of our teachers — especially elementary school teachers — until long after we’re out of their classrooms.

Mrs. MacPhail (kindergarten) taught me that finger painting — and patience — could be cool. I learned from Mrs. Daenzer (first grade) that the teacher the other kids saw as “mean” could push you the furthest.

Mrs. Lincoln (second grade) talked to me like I was an adult. Ms. Driscoll (third grade) actually understood my weird sense of humor. Mr. Walmsley (fourth grade) showed me how to play chess and to appreciate the music of Queen. Mr. Anderson (fifth grade) taught me to laugh at myself.

Oh, and Ms. Meeker — a young Michigan State University student teacher — gave me a hug on the day I wore my Michigan State T-shirt. She was in our fifth-grade classroom on Mondays. I wore that MSU T-shirt every Monday for the entire school year. She taught me that, as a 10-year-old, I was willing to regularly pull a shirt out of the dirty clothes on the off chance that a college woman would hug me.

I probably should reach out, somehow, to thank them all.

Especially for this.

My mom regularly volunteered at my elementary school. She hand cut angel wings from giant sheets of cardboard for the kids to wear at our Christmas concert. Made dozens and dozens of those Christmas wreath cookies for the holiday bake sale. Sat at our kitchen table to make up games for our school carnival. “What if kids have to wear giant gloves and then have one minute to unwrap as many butterscotch candies as they can?” So we sat at the kitchen table and tried that. I remember how cool it was when that game made it into the carnival.

Through much of that, my mom was fighting cancer.

When I was in fourth grade, my mom lost her battle.

The battle, though, probably had been lost long before. I’m sure that was obvious to everyone but fourth-grade me.

They took her away in an ambulance after I left for school on that Thursday in October 1978. She died that morning while I was in class.

Late that afternoon, the entire Bangor North Elementary School of Bay City, Mich., got called into a last-second, impromptu assembly.

An assembly! Would we get to see a puppet show about bullying? Jump ropers who would then talk about how cool it was to recycle? A juggler who would then discuss personal hygiene? An ex-con? Would it be an ex-con?

This impromptu assembly focused on dealing with death.

So there I sat, cross-legged on the gym floor with the other 150 or so kids, listening as those teachers, one by one, stood in front of us and talked about things like the importance of sharing your feelings if you were ever to lose a loved one. And how we all respond to death in different ways and how no way is wrong. And how we could talk to any of them — anytime — about whatever we needed.

As we filed out of the gym, every kid was given a small sheet of paper with the teachers’ home phone numbers on it. We were told that, if someone close to you happened to die, and you needed to talk, you could call any of those teachers.

Anytime.

I realized later, of course, that the impromptu assembly mostly was for me. Those teachers had heard about my mom. So they decided to call an assembly. To stand up and speak in front of those kids. To type up and mimeograph those home phone numbers.

They knew I was just a few minutes — and a few blocks’ walk — away from being told my mother was gone.

When I got to my house, a number of family members were standing in our driveway. They were, I remember, wearing sunglasses. My dad took me inside to tell me about my mom.

Later that night, I remember finding that sheet of paper with the phone numbers in my pocket. I never did, though, call any of those teachers.

I should call them now, just to thank them.

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