Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Story Corps, “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives”, organized a National Day of Listening. Story Corps, whose stories are heard on National Public Radio (NPR) suggested that everyone reach out to their favorite teacher or mentor to say “Thank you for changing my life.”
Everyone has at least one favorite teacher. I have two.
I loved my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Rowland, who made every task in class seem effortless. She was the Mary Poppins of my educational career who embodied the lyric, “in every task that must be done, there is an element of fun..” I was devastated when I had to leave her class midway through a school year to move to Connecticut. She was the teacher who impressed me in that short period of time as someone who visibly cared for each and every one of her students. My memories of the class are of a happy mixture of camaraderie and learning.
In contrast, my other favorite teacher, although I did not know this at the time, was the towering and imposing Sister Ella from first grade at Resurrection Elementary School in Rye, NY.
Sister Ella’s height was exaggerated by the dark pleated habit worn by the Sisters of Charity; yards of black fabric draped from her imposing shoulders to a breadth of an inch off the floor. Soaring atop this living obelisk was the commanding bonnet that framed a stern face and a set of steely black eyes. There was no hyperbole in seeing her as a Colossus; our small statures exaggerated her presence, but she could peer down on terrified parents as well. One glance from her could stop a speeding train, or more usefully, 33 six-year-olds lining up for recess…I am not exaggerating.
Sister Ella taught my classmates and me how to read. She accomplished this amazing feat with what I know now was an unsurpassed instinct for child psychology. At the beginning of the school year, she strategically placed the most challenging and difficult books, which I speculated by default must be the most interesting, well out of reach. We were allowed to access these treasures only by proving our reading prowess. The competitive streak in me was ignited at the onset of the school year, and so I speedily consumed the “easy readers” on the lower shelves as fast as I could. I poured through The Whales Go By, Sam the Firefly, and Go, Dog, Go. I plowed through the Dick and Jane series. I chugged through The Biggest Bear, Andy and the Lion and a multitude of Madeline stories. Determined to get to the prized collection ahead of the others, I lugged piles of books home to return them completed the following day.
Not all reading instruction was enjoyable. There was the tedious work in SRA workbooks which required a student read a nonfiction passage and answer multiple choice questions. Every student started at level purple, an infuriatingly slow level with terribly dull passages. Level Gold, the top level, was impossibly far away. Several months into SRA practice, I figured how to cheat by slipping the multiple choice answer keys from the next level into my workbook for easy access. Sister Ella caught on quickly, a terrifying moment in my nascent educational career. I was trembling when she silently moved me several levels ahead. In crossing out levels purple, blue, and green, she had acknowledged my frustration. I was promoted to level Aqua! I was skipped to the middle of the SRA series, my cheating days behind me.
By midyear, I had proved my reading was up to her exacting standards, and I was allowed to read the books from the top of the shelves while others students worked in more intermediate reading groups. She had correctly assessed my competitive nature and allowed me the freedom to read from the top shelf those books that I wanted. There were copies of The Boxcar Children and the Bobbsey Twins series, Ginger Pye, and a copy of Charlotte’s Web.
By the end of the school year, the other students in class had joined me. Reading time was respected in 1st grade. We would read daily-quietly in groups or in read-alouds. The Weekly Reader was introduced that year, I learned to appreciate reading the news as well.
Sister Ella had absolutely none of the warm characteristics that usually denote a first grade teacher, however, in retrospect, I came to recognize that her ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity in her students was above par. Her gift of reading has sustained me in all of my life’s activities. To foster a love of reading is the greatest gift a teacher can give. So, thank you Sister Ella. I hope to do the same.