Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mrs. Ellis and the Power of Teaching

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. -- Carl Jung

Walking along the Horsham bike path the other day, I admired the fullness of the tall, green stalks enveloping the corn fields, standing tall and upright as they reached for the heavens.  For a few days last week, the air turned brisk and a cool breeze whisked in from the north, the distant white clouds gliding along the bright blue expanse of the horizon.  As autumn beckons, when hot August nights traverse into cool September mornings, life feels fresh and new again. As I listened to the Hatboro-Horsham High School marching band practice in the distance, the drum cadences dictating a rhythmic precision, I was reminded again of life as a young man, before September became just another month, when the end of summer marked the start of a new school year.

Although the venues change and classmates come and go, the steady march of time passes through the generations as youthful endeavors forever recede into eternity.  For nearly two decades now, September has promised my two daughters each a new beginning as well – new classes and teachers, new friends, and the hope for new experiences.  As they enter their senior years, one in college, the other high school, the promise of a fresh start continues to endure and rejuvenate.

I still remember my first day of school in September 1964, my stainless steel lunchbox in hand as I waited nervously at the bus stop on the corner of Parry Drive and Cooper Avenue in Moorestown, New Jersey.  Although I tried to appear brave, the butterflies in my stomach betrayed any sense of coolness as the mysteries of kindergarten awaited me a mile-and-a-half away.  I survived, of course, and quickly adapted to the rhythm of school.  I remember little else about that first year, though, other than half days filled with simple arithmetic, snack time, recreation time, and nap time.  Kindergarten was but a weigh station to first and second grade, when the real work would begin, and life would be forever altered by the ability to read and a desire to learn.

Recently, I happened across a picture of my second grade class at South Valley Elementary School taken in the spring of 1967, when I was eight years old and possessed a devilish innocence that bespoke an eternal, if reticent optimism.  Though the faces are familiar, I remember few names and can only wonder where my classmates are today, where the paths of life have taken them, how history and experience have affected them.  Not surprisingly, the person I remember most vividly is my teacher, Mrs. Ellis.  A kind, warm, African American woman of grace and stature, she taught us during the two formidable years of first and second grade.  It was Mrs. Ellis who taught us to read, to multiply and divide, to follow directions, and to think for ourselves.  She was one of the best teachers I have ever had, a dedicated public servant who represents everything that is good and decent about America and the value of education.

Mrs. Ellis understood instinctively the words of President John F. Kennedy, that education was “the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation."  Mrs. Ellis did not merely teach us to read and write, add and subtract – though these she did quite well – she developed our young minds and helped us mature and to feel valued as human beings.  She inspired us to want to learn, to want to achieve, work hard, and improve our lives.

I especially appreciate a good teacher, because in the United States, at least, the teaching profession has always been undervalued.  “Modern cynics and skeptics,” said President Kennedy, “see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”  A half-century later, little has changed.  When a hedge fund manager makes more money in a week than a schoolteacher makes in a lifetime, there is something wrong with the world.  Someday, when we are past our prime and looking back on life, when our children are older and beyond the need of a parent’s advice, it will not matter what kind of house we live in, or car we drive, or how many stock dividends we claim on our tax returns each year.  What will matter is how we influenced the lives of others and whether we left the world a better place than when we entered.  Mrs. Ellis has long since passed that test. 

"It is not what is poured into a student that counts,” said Linda Conway, “but what is planted."  Mrs. Ellis was the gardener of my early education, planting the seeds that helped make me what I am today. Her influence over my young and developing mind was real and magical.  “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist,” said John Steinbeck, “and that there are as few as there are any other great artists.”  Mrs. Ellis was a true artist indeed.

I have been blessed with many outstanding teachers and professors in my lifetime, but Mrs. Ellis will always be special, for it was under her guidance I learned to read, to write, and to embark on a journey of the human mind and spirit.  Today, when I read a good book or write something of substance, I think of Mrs. Ellis. Looking now at the above photograph (I am in the front row, fourth from the left), I am in awe of this group of naive, innocent, wide eyed children, full of life and dreams and limitless possibility.  An all-white class taught by a positive, uplifting black woman, we were oblivious to the civil rights movement and not cognizant of the many inequities and injustices of life.  And yet, fully enraptured by this vibrant, strong, kind woman who led, taught, molded, and cared for us as if we were her own children, we knew we were in good hands, secure in the knowledge that if we tried and failed, if we fell down along the way, Mrs. Ellis would be there to help us to our feet and to try again. 

“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Thurgood Marshall once said. “We got here because somebody (a parent, a teacher . . .  or a few nuns) bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” When we think back on the teachers and mentors of our lives, we especially appreciate the effective ones, those whose influence left a permanent mark.  But it is the few who touched our humanity that we remember with deepest gratitude.  Here’s to you, Mrs. Ellis, and to all the great teachers past and present.

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