From kindergarten through third grade I attended one school. I was comfortable and happy there, and not just because it was the first place I ever heard of a guy named David Cassidy. Maybe it was that it was also the first place I saw his poster with that huge peace medallion on his chest. Maybe it was that I had an older sister there, so our family name was established and positive. Maybe it was that I liked to write stories and the teachers and principal always seemed to enjoy them. Whatever it was, my life at that school was lovely.
Fourth grade took a crazy turn for the worse. We had moved halfway across the country during the summer and I was overwhelmed on my first day of school. I took my assigned seat in the back of the room (a seat which would remain mine throughout the entire school year.) At some point that first day, the teacher asked for volunteers to describe their vacation trips. I was quiet and never spoke up. After all, we had moved - not vacationed. Later she asked where I had vacationed and I replied that we hade moved halfway across the country. The teacher's response was to stand and lecture that I had cheated the class out of a great vacation tale. That was, in short, the best part of the school year. She never missed an opportunity to demean me, to chastise me, or to let me know that I was worthless in her opinion. Although those things were only her opinion, she was the teacher and I believed every word she said. How amazing that this teacher, with her mastered cruelty, was able to erase my nine previous years of happiness and success. And it seemed that those successes were never to be seen again.
Then fifth grade happened.
Because of redistricting, fifth grade meant a new school, a new set of peers, and a young, beautiful, gifted teacher named Helen Steinkritz.
Mrs. Steinkritz was the type of teacher every student deserves to work with at least once in a lifetime. She was creative, honest, fun, energetic, and she had lived a lifetime in her 23 years.
Every one of our senses was engaged in that colorful, living classroom and Mrs. S. was the orchestrator of the details. We not only mastered the required curriculum, but the teacher found a way to compel us to move beyond any limiting confidence boundaries internally or externally imposed. She made it her goal to know us, and more importantly, each student in there was convinced that he or she was the teacher's pet. Every one of us was correct.
I had spent entire school years before not knowing anything of my teachers' lives outside of school, but this teacher was very open about her background and her family, her fears and her triumphs, and she encouraged us to share our lives with her. From her, we learned about and celebrated Hanukkah in school that year. I had never before known about concentration camps, so what a gift it was to learn about her relatives' escape from one during WWII. From me, she wanted to learn what it like to grow up the daughter of protestant minister. As she shared from her life, I gained enough confidence to share about mine. I learned to speak up in class. I learned to discuss politics. I learned that history and science and literature can't be separated. I learned that I was interesting. I learned the thrill of writing a play and watching it performed. I relearned how to laugh and be happy in school. I learned that a teacher thought I was of worth and I learned to believe that she was right in her assessment.
I see the remnants of the bad teachers every semester in my own job now. These remnants walk into my classes and they tell me they can't write, they aren't good readers, they aren't very bright, they shouldn't even be in college. They find seats in the back and corners of the room and wilt if called on in class. And when that first essay is due, they try to find to a way to hand it in without ever making eye contact with me. Sometimes our eyes do meet, and these - some of the past victims of cruel teachers - tell me I shouldn't expect much.
But sometimes I see a young Caution Flag standing there hoping that maybe some teacher might be able to see something of value. And I think about Mrs. S. and wonder what might have happened if she hadn't been placed in my path that year.
I don't where you are now, Helen Steinkritz, but I do know that I remember you, and I hope that just a little of you might live in me.