In my own words…
I never met a student I didn't love … though a few of them worked my last nerve
Aug. 19, 2001
The late comedian Will Rogers is noted for the statement, "I never met a man I didn't like." To my knowledge, there is no follow up quote that tells how he felt once he got to know the person. Most of us can manage to be pleasant and sociable during an introduction. It's when we begin to spend time with the new acquaintance that true impressions are made.
The new school year has just begun. On the first day of school, students and teachers sized each other up based on what others had said or what they observed. Since both teachers and students likely put their "best foot forward," each probably went home after the first day with a pretty good impression of the other. But how will they feel by the end of the first week? The month? The first semester? May 2002?
I spent 31 years as a classroom teacher, and I can honestly say that with the exception of the stressful days of integration in 1967 when I became the first African American teacher at Northwest Junior High School, I never went to school a single morning that I did not eagerly anticipate the arrival of my students. Even then, there were students at Northwest such as Sally Nevells, (she sends me a Christmas card every year ) Lou Ann Warner, Kris Gianakos and Keith Herrington who went out of their way to make life easier for me. I never met a student I didn't love.
Oh, come now, Mrs. Clark, you're thinking. That can't be so. But it is.
Oh, I remember the time at Carver Jr. High School when a student came to my door and said Mr. Sykes wanted me to come to the office and bring my roll book. I was a very young teacher then, and the thought of being summoned to the office scared me. I left my class and went to the office, wondering what I had done wrong, only to be told by the secretary that Mr. Sykes was off campus. When I came back to my room, the student shouted, "April Fool!"
Or, what about the time at Kate Griffin that Michael put that large, hairy, brown spider (it was made of rubber, but I didn't know it) under some books on my desk? When I picked up the book to start teaching, there was that spider! I screamed so loud, the principal heard me in his office, After I assured him all was well and he had returned to his office, I tore that spider leg for leg and threw each leg in the waste basket while Michael pleaded, "But, Mrs. Clark, it wasn't even my spider." Or… but you get the picture.
There were times over the years when students did things that upset me, whether done in "aggravating fun" or disrespectful meanness, but I usually dealt with it, trying to keep in mind that I was teaching children who had not become what they ultimately would be, and in spite of what the student had done in my classroom, somewhere that child has a mother who loves him, therefore he couldn't be all bad.
In July, I coaxed my older sister Lucille into going to Los Angeles with me for a week's vacation. We have a number of first cousins in LA and a sister in Pasadena. I also wanted to be an unfettered tourist, visiting as many places and things as I could in the seven days we were there. Equally as important, there were six of my former students who lived in and around LA that I wanted to see.
On Saturday, Patricia Thompson Calloway and her sister, Gwendolyn, drove in from Chula Vista, Calif., and treated me to a scrumptious lunch. I had no idea where Chula Vista was in proximity to LA, and was stunned to learn that it was three hours away. When we returned to the hotel where I was staying, Allen Bridges, a student from the 60's, was waiting for me. He wanted to take me to a jazz thing, but Shirley Porter Patterson and her husband, Ronald, had dibs on me, so we all went to Shirley and Ron's House for a delightful evening.
The next day, Shirley and Ron, along with their son who had just graduated from college, and Shirley's sister, Patricia, took me to Maria Calendar's for brunch. In the meantime, Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte had flown in from Oakland and joined us. The following Tuesday would be my birthday and Judge Brenda surprised me with a bag full of goodies, including a very touching card.
After a very exciting seven days in Los Angeles, my sister and I were ready to come home. The whole trip had been just delightful, but the best part of all had been seeing my former students. All were doing well: good jobs, fancy cars, nice houses or condos, happy relationships. Several were church-going Christian believers.
Most important instrument
As I meditated upon the bond I still have with my students after almost 40 years, I am reminded of something I read in Booker T. Washington's biography as he spoke of his education at Hampton Institute. "You can have all the latest apparatuses in the world for teaching, but the most important instrument in the learning process is the teacher."
How student and teacher get along with each other depends upon many variables, the most important being attitude: the student's attitude toward learning and the teacher's attitude toward teaching. Any seasoned teacher knows and the less experienced ones will soon learn that how a teacher disseminates her knowledge, especially to younger students, is as important as how much she knows. She must love what she teaches as well as who she teaches.
No, I never met a student I didn't love, and even after I got to know them, I still liked them. I loved them first of all because they were God's children, too, and God is love. I loved them because they were children with potential which I now see materialized in the six students whom I saw in Los Angeles, as well as thousands of others whose lives I was blessed to touch. Though a few of them worked my last nerve, I still loved them. Teaching English was my profession, but students were my passion. I hope each child and teacher will have a wonderfully rewarding year in the classroom, and that in May 2002, all of your likes will have truly turned to love.
Melba Baird Clark, a retired teacher, lives in Meridian.