Beneath the old cottonwood tree there once stood a one-room school house. My mother went to school there as a girl, a short walk from home along the Iowa country road. Misty mornings on a road between cornfields and soybean fields can often conjure up ghosts.
I took this morning walk with the dog while I was visiting my old Iowegian home, and I was writing my fictional story Magical Miss Morgan in my head, not yet having had time to sit down and write. I was reflecting on times long past and a school long gone, though Miss Morgan’s story is really about my own teaching experience. Miss Morgan is in many ways me. But I am not a female teacher. I am a goofy old man. So, why am I writing the main character as a female?
Well, the ghosts from the old school house heard that and decided to send an answer.
Miss Mennenga was my third grade and fourth grade teacher from the Rowan school. The building I attended her classes in has been gone for thirty years. Miss M herself has long since passed to the other side. So when she appeared at the corner… Yes, I know… I have said countless times that I don’t believe in ghosts, but she had the same flower-patterned dress, the glasses, the large, magnified brown eyes that could look into your soul and see all your secrets, yet love you enough to not tell them to anyone else. Suddenly, I knew where the character of Miss Morgan had actually come from. I also realized why I was drawn to teaching in the first place. Teachers teach you more than just long division, lessons about the circulatory systems of frogs, and the Battle of Gettysburg… They shape your soul.
“You remember getting in trouble for doing jokes in class when you were supposed to be studying your spelling words?”
“Yes, Miss M, but I didn’t make any noise.. they were pantomime jokes that I stole from watching Red Skelton on TV.”
“But you pulled your heart out of your chest and made it beat in your hand. You had to know that was going to make the boys smirk and the girls giggle.”
“I did. But making them happy was part of the reason God put me there.”
“But not during spelling. I was trying to teach math to fourth graders. You interrupted.”
“You made that point. I still remember vividly. You let me read the story to the class out loud afterwords. You said I needed to use my talent for entertaining to help others learn, not distract them from learning.”
“I was very proud of the way you learned that lesson.”
“I tried very hard as a teacher to never miss a teachable moment like that. It was part of the reason that God put you there.”
“And I did love to hear you read aloud to the class. You were always such an expressive reader, Michael. Do you remember what book it was?”
“It was Ribsy, by Beverly Cleary. How could I have forgotten that until now? You made me love reading out loud so much that I always did it in my own classes, at every opportunity.”
I remembered the smile above all else as the lingering image faded from my view through the eyes of memory. She had a warm and loving smile. I can only hope my goofy grin didn’t scare too many kids throughout my career.
I needed a post for 1000 Voices that was about reconnecting with someone. I could’ve used any number of real life examples from everything that has happened to me since poor health forced me to retire from teaching I could’ve written any number of things that would not make me feel all sad and goopy about retiring and would not make me cry at my keyboard again like I am doing now… like I did all through that silly novel I wrote… even during the funny parts. But I had to choose this. A debt had to be paid. I love you, Miss M… and I had to pay it forward.