*Special thanks to Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy for serving as today’s guest writer. Always a pleasure to read her work!*
Timing was everything. The sound of The Huntley-Brinkley Report emanating from the television in our living room was my ticking clock, each word a precious second flying by. Night after night as they delivered the evening news to the nation, I sat at the chrome table with the marbled green top, the smell of spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken, vegetable beef soup, or whatever my mother had cooked for supper that night lingering in the kitchen. I gripped the yellow No. 2 pencil, pressed my lips together, and tried to copy the elegantly formed letters of my mother’s handwriting.
I was a third grader who had landed in the classroom of a teacher who routinely screamed at us, and, on one occasion, had tied an unruly student in her desk with a jump rope. This teacher was rumored to have deliberately turned the stone of her ring palm-side in and slapped a former student’s face in order to make a more marked impression. I believed that rumor, for she had once yanked me from my seat and whacked my bare leg so hard she left behind the imprint of her hand. Just being in that teacher’s classroom caused my muscles to constrict and my palms to sweat. Unfortunately, my constant state of unease led me to bear down too hard when I wrote, making my writing dark and prone to smudging.
Up to this point in my schooling, I had never gotten a grade below a B on my report card. That year, I received a steady string of C’s in penmanship. My mother was typically a stickler for good grades, but when those C’s began appearing on my report card, she told me to do my best and not worry so much about the grade I got. Even when the C’s dropped to a C- during one grading period, she didn’t reprimand me.
“I don’t want to make a D,” I sobbed as I handed her the offending report card.
“You won’t,” my mother reassured me. “I’ve got a plan for improving your penmanship.”
My mother’s plan was for me to copy her handwriting, five pages each weeknight for the next six weeks. If I completed my work before my favorite television shows came on after the evening news, I could watch them. If not, those Beverly Hillbillies would have to exasperate and outsmart the city folk without me. The cast of Lost in Space would have to escape the villains of the cosmos without this small earthling cheering them on. And worst of all, I would miss the antics of that adorable sheepdog in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Desperate to go to places where there were no mean third grade teachers, I filled up those five pages night after night as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley droned on about the escalating war in Vietnam and the rising racial tensions at home.
When the report cards came out following my six weeks of diligent handwriting practice, I couldn’t wait to see how well I’d done in penmanship. Certain that I had raised my grade to at least a B, I slid my card out of its manila envelope. Next to the last grading period’s C- was a C+. That afternoon, I trudged home, the air around me so heavy I could barely breathe.
“How’d you do?” my mother asked, meeting me at the door to our house, her brown eyes bright with anticipation.
I handed her my report card.
She looked at it, her face never displaying the disappointment she must have felt.
“Oh, well,” she said with a shrug. “I guess your teacher just thinks of a C as average, and she gave you a C+, so she must think of you as above average.”
In that moment, the air was infinitely more breathable. Without criticizing my teacher, my mother had taught me the vital lessons of tenacity and acceptance. I don’t believe any of my favorite television programs won Emmy Awards that year; but, if they gave Emmys to teachers, my mother would have gotten one for her performance that afternoon. In fact, her mantel would be filled with awards for recognizing and responding to so many teachable moments both at home and in the junior high school classrooms where she taught for thirty years.
The next year, I moved on to the classroom of a fourth grade teacher who read us Beverly Cleary books and played peppy music so we could do shoulder-wiggling/feet-jiggling exercises in our seats on rainy days. She often gave us assignments to write about things that occurred in our lives. For one assignment, I wrote about my family’s vacation to California. Though it would have been thrilling to have written about seeing one of my television heroes out in Hollywood, I’m sure I stuck to the real-life events of playing with my aunt and uncle’s Pekingese pups and riding in the teacups at Disneyland with my mother.
When the teacher returned my paper, she paused at my desk and said, “You have such beautiful handwriting.”
At the top of the page was a fat red A followed by a comment that read, “Sounds like a lot of fun!”
I raised my eyes to meet my teacher’s smiling face.
“Thanks,” I said. “My mother taught me how to write like that.”