My First Teacher

Last Thursday morning, minutes away from the first-period bell, I was in robot mode, punching pencils into the electric sharpener on the counter of my classroom. You see, experience has taught me to keep on hand a batch of ready-to-use #2s for those hapless souls who come to class sans writing instrument. (Colleagues chastise me for aiding and abetting student carelessness. “Make them sign the tardy log!” they bark.  “Punish them for their unpreparedness!” I did that for a while, but found it to have no effect on the more Mr. Magoo-ey of my students. In other words, the ones who are like me.)

As the pencil sharpener whined and whirred, there came a sudden, unbidden memory of my mother.

***

I am 17 years old, in my childhood home, dressed and ready for school, but still bleary-eyed and yawning. Hunched over the dining room table, I’m punching pencil-after-pencil into an electric sharpener—in those days a luxury item that Mom induced Dad to buy because her first-graders have taken to surreptitiously breaking pencil-points as a stalling tactic.

Mom has countered—buying pencils by the hundreds, and charging me and my siblings, in turns, to pull morning duty, sharpening dozens of pencils and putting them into a cigar box. This way, Mom nips her students’ foot-dragging by quickly delivering a freshly sharpened pencil to every child who breaks his or hers.

For my sibs and me, this duty comes with specific instruction. Turns out, there is a golden mean of pencil-sharpening—neither too sharp nor too blunt.  We kids learn to work that sharpener as deftly as John Coltrane works his saxophone. Mom thanks us profusely, and repeatedly tells us we’re part of her teaching. I half-listen to her.

***

Nearly a half-century later, all of that came suddenly to mind and prompted me to pay closer attention to the tips of the pencils I was pulling from my classroom sharpener. “Geez, I’m making these too sharp,” I muttered. And I thought again of how Mom used to insist that I was part of her teaching.

I paused and wondered if her decades-ago encouragement and her own teaching have served in any way as cause for my being exactly where I am now—in a classroom of my own.  I must tell you that until about fifteen years ago, I never dreamed I would wind up a teacher. If on that morning in my 17th year, Mom had said, “Jerry, you’ll be teacher, too, one day!” I would’ve laughed in her face.

My mother clung tightly to her identity as a teacher throughout her adult life. But I dismissed her claim in my early adolescence—those years when you start to challenge your parents. I thought, “She calls herself a teacher, but how much has she actually taught?”

Not much, up to that time. There had been those very few years at Moore Elementary School following her college graduation, before she had quit to have kids.  Then, after my baby sister started to school, Mom tried again, this time at Wylam Elementary. But that didn’t last, as she couldn’t find enough energy to teach while battling depression..

Then, in the early 1970s, on her third try, she was hired on the spot while filling out an application for Jefferson County Schools. The county sent her to an impoverished and neglected, nearly one-hundred percent African-American school—Roosevelt City Elementary. Within two years, her students were outperforming over-the-mountain rich kids in reading.

Mom had taken a mandated, standardized reading program and had altered it so that, among other things, extra repetition was added. She persuaded a banker in our church to give her the bank’s discarded IBM punch-cards so she—and we, her children—could fashion them into reading flashcards. Doing this, she lifted her own students to the top of the charts.

This was along about the time my 17-year-old bleary-eyed self was sharpening pencils for her. There was then a particular moment when it hit me: “Wow! Mom really is a teacher.”

***

No doubt, all of our lives are influenced in some measure by our parents’ lives. Yet I don’t think we can ever be sure of the degree—or even the precise ways—in which we are influenced by our parents. I think we construct narratives, life stories that infer our parents’ influences. But are those narratives always accurate? I’m not sure.

Still, in my constructed narrative, I can’t seem to let go of the notion that my winding vocational path has now arrived at Room A104 of Bumpus Middle School precisely because my mother was a teacher—and a good one.

Thus, last Thursday, over the whine and grind of an electric pencil sharpener, I heard my mother’s voice again tell me that I was a part of her teaching.

And I heard my own voice reply, “And you’re part of mine, too, Mom.”

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