Her name was Mrs. Collins and she walked everywhere. A widow, raising her sons on her own, she walked each day to our school, wearing her loose-fitting cotton dresses. She was my third-grade teacher. She is a big part of the reason I became a teacher.
That year, I began to “play school” at my house with my sister, Patty, and our neighbors, Laura, Lisa, and Debbie. We would take turns being “teacher,” while the others sat at a small table and, to a certain degree, followed instructions. As I remember it, being teacher mostly consisted of taking roll on a sheet we carefully composed with columns drawn with a ruler and filled in with a made-up class roster. We also checked to see who all would be buying milk that day. (Little did I know back then the real duties of a teacher. . . :>)
Outside our classroom was our bike rack. My blue bicycle, my pride and joy, was parked there many days. No lock. In the basket in the front, I could put my book satchel (not to be confused with a book bag) and my lunchbox. Red plaid aluminum. (Yes, Ben – Ben is my son – at the risk of embarrassing you, I had a book satchel and I rode my bike or walked to school many days. Yes, it was a long time ago. Yes, I am incredibly old.)
Mrs. Collins was soft-spoken. She didn’t yell. My first and second grade teachers at a different school had sometimes yelled and children had cried.
She could get us to calm down though. And after lunch, she would walk around the room and place a piece of candy on our desk if we had earned it, a soft peppermint, or a butterscotch, or a lemon drop. This was unheard of back then. This was a miracle. We worked hard for those small treats.
I remember loving to sharpen my pencil and practice my cursive or my “arithmetic,” and I remember the smell of the rolls they made every day in the school lunchroom.
When we went outside, we played “boys chase the girls,” or vice versa. We got a little rough. (Times were different.) I will never forget her telling me and my friends, “Billy and Donny are nice boys. They’re nice boys.”
Now Billy and Donny (not their real names) were squirmy, talkative boys in the classroom. They sometime had to be “redirected.” As I remember it, they wore the same clothes every couple of days and they struggled to learn to read. To sit still and “do their work.”
As a child who loved, and I mean loved school, that year at least, I had looked at them askance. I didn’t “get” them. But that day, I say them through Mrs. Collins’ eyes. She was right. They were nice boys.
I was just a child, but she gave me a new vision of the world, a new way of looking at people I didn’t understand immediately. There is so much more I could say Mrs. Collins, and I know I will write about her again.
But one of the other things I remember about that year was that I began to write. She gave us time to read – oh, joy! – and to write. I began writing a “book,” about a large family of girls who lived next door to a large family of boys the exact same ages as the girls. A highly believable story, I am sure. For years I kept it in my cloth-covered blue binder labeled “Private: Keep Out.” I added more stories to it in time.
I later did get to teach school, and last year I finally finished writing a book, something I have always wanted with all my heart to try to do. But I think the most important way Mrs. Collins reached me that year was by giving me the chance to understand, like, and appreciate people I had not cared about before.