Day 22: Dear Mrs. McGrath

*It’s hard to believe Day 22 of the Dear Gratitude project has arrived! Only eight more days of letters from eight more wonderful guest writers. Today’s post is by LaDonna Busby, a friend and fellow church member.*

This thank you is long overdue, and it is going to someone long dead.  Why do we wait to express our gratitude to those who cross our paths in this life?  We need to remember to say thank you, even if we have to send letters read by someone other than the intended person.  So here goes:

Dear Mrs. McGrath,

1ST GRADEI wonder if you ever knew what a wonderful gift you gave me – something that I have cherished my whole life long.  You introduced me to READING!  For that great gift, I want to say thank you, and I am sorry it has taken me over 50 years to express this gratitude.

Oh, the people and places you enabled me to meet and visit.  I still remember you patiently helping us to learn “Look Jane, look.  See Spot run.  Oh, look Jane, see Spot.”

Thus began my adventures with some sweet characters, some not so sweet.  Many are like dear friends when I think of them.  Amy, Beth, Meg and Jo from Little Women – each one a different personality woven into a story that young girls can enjoy even today.  I still have a treasured copy of that book.  There were so many others – The Bobbsey Twins (Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie); Laura Ingalls;  Hester Prynne from “The Scarlet Letter”, Jane Eyre; David Copperfield; Romeo and Juliet; Tom Sawyer, and the list could go on and on.

Not only did I get to know some wonderful characters, but I also got to travel without even leaving my cozy chair. Through reading I have traveled the world over, learning many interesting things, seeing so many beautiful places – even if only in my mind and imagination.  Of course not all places are wonderful, but I traveled where the books took me.  Nowadays, a lot of my reading is about places of trouble and sadness.  Places of war, poverty and cruelty – but I read on filled with hope that some time I will read that things have improved for some country or its people.

Your gift has blessed my life in so many ways.  Reading is so important to me.  I have been able to read the letters sent by my brother when he was in Vietnam.  There have been cards – birthday, anniversary, get well, thank yous, invitations, and notes of sympathy.  Just think what I would have missed if I had not been able to read.

I am able to read the Bible.  Through my reading of scripture, I have become stronger in my faith.  My faith is so important to me, and I cannot imagine being unable to read the Word of God.  The Bible is filled with stories, characters and places.  You can read it over and over, each time getting something new and powerful from the reading.

I passed on this gift to my daughter, Susan, who loves to read.  I don’t quite like her choice of books – she loves the author Stephen King – but I am happy to see her read.  Now we are passing this love along to her sons.  The oldest had quite a struggle learning to read – but thanks to a compassionate and caring teacher, like you, he conquered that mountain and now loves to read.  So, you see your gift to me just keeps going and going.

I wish I had gone back to Mitchell Elementary and thanked you.  When we are young, we don’t think to do things like that; it is only as we begin to mature that we realize what has been given to us.  Thank you, Mrs. McGrath, for being my 1st Grade teacher.  You were a kind and gentle woman who helped many children to begin a journey that will last their whole lives.  Please know, there is at least this one student who will forever be grateful.

Fondly,

LaDonna Wittke Busby

My mother’s Emmy Award winning moment

*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.

   

Teresa with her sister, Liz Burns Glenn, and her mother, Madeline Norris Burns, at the Arkansas (now Lyon) College library

Teresa with her sister, Liz Burns Glenn, and her mother, Madeline Norris Burns, at the Arkansas (now Lyon) College library

  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.”

    

Teresa's mother, Madeline Norris Burns, receiving the Lyon College Friend of Education Award, 1999

Teresa’s mother, Madeline Norris Burns, receiving the Lyon College Friend of Education Award, 1999

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.”

   

   

 

Learning to teach

A wise woman named Mauzelle who managed the Arkansas Methodist Church archives at Hendrix University once told me, as she tried to share her lunch with me while I researched Methodist women in the Ozarks, that she loves history and wants to do everything she can to preserve it.

“It’s so important, you see, because we are who they were.”

Bethany the professor!

Bethany the professor!

That rings true in my life in many ways. Lately, as I prepare to teach two courses on the college level for the first time, I have caught myself reminiscing about the teachers I remember most, teachers who made a difference in my life, either because of their great teaching abilities or because of their huge capacity to serve and care for students.

I’m thankful for Ms. Prim. In kindergarten she spent what seemed like forever unbraiding my hair while I sobbed uncontrollably one morning after begging my mom to fix my hair like Princess Leia. When I got to school and realized that none of the other girls looked like Princess Leia, I was mortified. Ms. Prim didn’t ask any questions. She just soothed my insecurities and gave me chocolate milk in a carton and graham crackers.

I’m thankful for Mr. Ward who took the time and effort to gather worms and crickets so that in fifth grade, when all things gross are very cool, we had the chance to eat cricket pizza and worm cookies. He made science more fascinating, fun, and whimsical. And I’m thankful for Mr. Smith, one of my high school science teachers, who had a true gift for explaining the most intricate theories in dummy terms. From him, I learned that I will earn my students’ respect not by being their buddy but by being a good teacher.

I’m thankful for Ms. Walters who had an infinite amount of patience with me as I struggled to make an “A” in algebra in eighth grade. I still don’t love math, but I remember that in her class, it wasn’t so bad. She helped me to understand that I can’t infuse my passion for my field into the heart of every single student, but I can certainly equip them to be better writers.

Maggie, in 2012, with the book Mr. Tilley gave to me in 2004

Maggie, in 2012, with the book Mr. Tilley gave to me in 2004

I’m thankful for Mr. Tilley who tolerated my huge crush on him. He was nearing retirement when I had him in class in 7th grade, but I just loved that man. He was dignified, smart, had a Grizzly Adams beard, and collected antiques. What could be cooler than that? When I realized that the antique children’s book I’d chosen to use as a prop in Maggie’s newborn photos was the book he’d given me when I visited him several years after graduating from high school, I cried. Mr. Tilley helped me to understand that being a good person is even more important than being a good teacher. He’s the kind of person I’ll never forget.

And that’s not even half of them.

I could spend hours writing a gratitude list solely pertaining to the educators in my life.

Instead, I think I’ll go work on my own courses. I have some teaching to do.

BFFs

2 sweet 2 B 4 gotten.

LYLAS.

BFFs.

Remember those notes between friends back in the 80s? I have a collection of them between me and my best friend, MeLissa.

Just being ourselves, circa 2004 maybe

Just being ourselves, circa 2004 maybe

My friend MeLissa and I have been friends for forever. We met in first grade at Rose Hill Elementary School in Rose Hill, Kansas. We rode the same bus for a while, but I’m  not sure if that’s how we became friends or not. All I know is that before long, we were begging our parents to let us have slumber parties together, making board games together out of big sheets of butcher paper, and practicing our gymnastics skills in the yard.

At first glance, we’re not really that similar. MeLissa is quieter than I am, more introspective, and more likely to listen than talk. She prefers the background rather than the limelight, and anyone who knows me knows that I have an extra large ham bone somewhere inside me. When we met, MeLissa lived with her dad in a nice, suburban neighborhood. My family lived in a trailer park, and we were on welfare. But despite all our differences, we managed to create countless fun memories together.

After my family moved out of state, I was worried I would lose my best friend. On the contrary, we became closer. We began writing letters. Real letters, on actual stationary and notebook paper, that required envelopes and postage stamps. In the days before email and Facebook, we kept in touch the old-fashioned way, and it worked. Through the awkward years of junior high, the trials of hormonally charged high school years, and the exuberance and adventures of college, we kept on writing. We’ve tried to be there for each other for the most important times, good and bad. We’ve laughed with one another and cried together, too. We’ve prayed for each other.

I’m beyond grateful for my best friend because of the joy, comfort, encouragement, and sense of calm our relationship brings to my life. I know I can pick up the phone, after not talking to her for six months, and start right where we left off without any pauses or awkward silences. There’s something to be said for forever friends. I wouldn’t trade mine for the world.

I love you, MeLissa. Happy birthday and hope your day is filled with that contagious laughter I love hearing every time I talk to you.