Heads up: this is a longer-than-usual post. With bagpipe music, if you're so inclined :)
I've mentioned my elementary school teacher a couple of times in connection with my art projects, here and here. It's time to write about Mrs. M., herself, I think. She influenced my life greatly in some of my most formative years. And I can't really write about her without describing the schoolroom in which she taught and the range of activities she provided for us, because they were a reflection of her approach and her commitment to teaching.
Mrs. M. was responsible for Grades Primary to Three in one room of the two-room school in my village. She provided a rich learning environment for her little students: lots of books in all reading levels; a dollhouse with a downstairs and an upstairs, little furniture and little dolls; a model of the solar system that she and her husband had made, with the biggest light bulb I'd ever seen as the sun, and planets on metal arms to show how they revolved around it; two elevated sandboxes right in the classroom, for days when the weather was too poor to go outside at recess; paints and brushes and a tiny sink where you cleaned your brushes after use; toys, such as building blocks, and pop-together beads.
There were other interesting things in our classroom as well. A high, narrow sickroom bed, where anyone who was feeling ill had to recline. A goldfish in a bowl on the side cupboard. An old-time wall telephone with a rotary dial and a crank on the side to ring the operator and the rest of the telephones in the community. Maps that unrolled from a tube above the blackboard. And cupboards full of supplies - stickers, buttons and fabric and bits of this and that for making collages, the aforementioned paints and brushes, sponges, coloured chalk, and construction paper, scissors. (This was waaaay back, decades before little kids each had to have their own scissors, their own crayons, their own planners, their own tissues, their own everything.)
Buried in one of those cupboards were also our band instruments, because - yes! - we had a rhythm band that performed when our parents came to visit for the final day of the school year. We always played the same piece to the accompaniment of "Scotland The Brave" on the record player (click here for a YouTube rendition that lasts ten hours, but you'll get the complete song in the first two minutes; the rest is repetition. Why? Check out the poster's answer to that below the YouTube video.) The youngest kids played rhythm sticks, the older ones played kazoos, several kids had triangles, and the coveted position of band leader, complete with director's baton, went to one child each year. We got to wear little capes and hats and the kids in back had to stand on a bench so their parents could see them.
For Parents' Day we also had either a play (for which we made costumes), or a puppet show (for which we made papier mache puppets). One year we made marionettes and a stage for them, and put on "Cinderella" - I remember that one especially because we managed the fairy godmother's magic by having two Cinderella puppets, dressed differently, yanking one out while dropping the other one in.
For the two weeks prior to Parents' Day, Mrs. M. took all of us kids, two at a time, after school, to her house to make cookes, squares, and other delectables to be served on the final day. Thus we gained cooking experience on top of everything else.
And in the late June days before school let out for the summer, Mrs. M. took us to the provincial park just across the road. Like a mother duck with her extremely large family of ducklings, she led us across the road in her little Volkswagon Beetle, driving slowly ahead of us as we walked through the forest to the open grassy intervale with picnic tables, where we ate our lunches.
The most amazing thing about this lady? She did all these things for us while suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis, at a time when there was little pharmaceutical relief for this painful condition. Her legs were crooked and stiff; her hands gnarled and misshapen. It was a slow, painful trip with a cane for her to get from her car, up the two steps to the school building, and to her desk inside, and she rarely moved until the end of the day when she made the reverse trip. It was hard for her to hold a pen, but she had beautiful penmanship. I was too young to know it at the time, but she was in constant pain, yet she was patient and kind and caring.
So how did she manage to teach a room full of little energetic kids without getting up and around? I would guess there were about twenty to twenty-five children in that room in any given year, ages five to eight, but I don't recall there ever being a discipline problem. She kept us interested and busy all the time. We took our work to and from her desk, rather than have her come to us to check our work. She got the bigger kids to help set out supplies, pass out papers, and prepare for art activities. We had a structured week which included art every Friday afternoon. We took turns reading aloud after lunch, something I remember because I loved to do it so much; we'd take our choice of book to stand beside the teacher's desk in case we needed help with a word. There was a small playground outside, where we burned off energy at lunchtime and recess. And there was also another teacher in the other half of the school (Grades Four to Six), who checked in on her a couple of times a day.
After I moved on from Mrs. M.'s classroom, I don't remember seeing much of her. We were supposed to stay in our respective areas according to our grade. I remember my mother encouraging me to go visit her later, when she was retired and bed-ridden. I was shy and not much of a conversationalist and she had to do most of the talking. But I'm so glad I went - and also sad that I wasn't comfortable enough to visit her again before she passed away. And very sorry that I never told her how much she had added to my life, both educationally and as a reliable, trusted, and kind adult in my little world.
Thank you, Mrs. M. You were my first school teacher, and although I had some fine teachers after you, you were the very best.