Mrs. Chambers was my first-grade teacher, back before most schools had kindergarten. The elementary school was in a shabby building in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the Navy base. It was 1966, and Ms. Chambers was large, African-American and I knew she adored me. She hugged a lot, and I couldn’t wait to get to her class each day. It was fun, adventurous and my brain was getting stretched. I left first grade completely loving school, and she had everything to do with it.
Miss Fitch was my third-grade teacher at Aquidneck Elementary in Middletown, R.I. Dad was a Master Chief and had been transferred to Fleet Training Group in nearby Newport. Miss Fitch was the first to fire me up about writing. She was stylish and animated and had that great New England accent. She would write prompts on the bulletin board, and our assignment was to write poems based on those phrases. I remember her calling us individually up to her desk to discuss them. She encouraged us to use the five senses as ways to describe things. And contrary to most writing teachers, she favored fewer words, what I now know was her trying to get us to distill things down to simple but meaningful phrases.
The school was near the ocean, the salty smell permeating everything back in those pre-AC days. And cow pastures were all around, lush green fields and clear-running brooks our playgrounds after school. When we moved to base housing in the middle of the year and I switched schools, Miss Fitch and the class wrote me a poem that they put in a frame, which my mom kept for years.
Seventh grade we were in Fayetteville, my father having retired from the military. By now, my parents had split, so the influence of the teachers had grown. As happens with many children from broken families, school became a kind of refuge. In those days in Cumberland County, seventh grade was the last year in elementary school, and we switched classroom teachers after lunch.
Mrs. Ashley was charged with teaching us English and history every afternoon. If you got Mrs. Ashley, you knew you were on the hook for a 40-page report on Africa. Yep, seventh grade, 40 pages, hand-written. We worked on it in class while she played albums from Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Bread and other bands I was just getting into. She wore long, flowing dresses, funky jewelry, painted her nails all different colors and had long dark hair.
By this time I was identified as a good student, making A’s and for the most part well-behaved. As I said, my parents had split up the year before so things had changed. I was testing boundaries. My friends and I devised what we thought were clever hand signals I would use to share answers to the multiple-choice questions on the history tests. We were cheating. She called me out to the hall after we turned in the first tests in which we used our ingenious method. She grabbed me by both shoulders and leaned down, our faces inches apart. She told me I could let those who were bad influences drag me down to their level or I could take my own path and rise above. She told me I knew right from wrong and doing the right thing was usually harder than doing the wrong thing. That one stuck, and I didn’t give out any more answers. Still, there was much to learn.
Eighth grade at the junior high school was a bad year for me. I was 14 years old and indeed running with the wrong crowd but still excelling at school. I thought I was cute and made a wise-ass crack out loud in Miss Page’s class. She was all of five-feet tall, and she rushed to my desk with paddle in hand, grabbed me by my arm, jerked me up and practically drug me into the hall. “You will respect me, respect my class and your classmates.” Ten licks later I was back sitting in my desk, embarrassed, pride hurt, but lesson learned.
In high school Mr. Sykes taught journalism. She coaxed me, encouraged me and I became a pretty good reporter while still in high school. She helped me get a job at what is now the Fayetteville Observer-Times, where we would work until almost midnight calling coaches from around the region and writing short stories on football and basketball games. When Mrs. Sykes got into trouble for what was supposedly inappropriate relations with students, I wrote an essay about what a great teacher she was and how her she had been unjustly accused. That essay helped me get a scholarship to Appalachian State.
And there were plenty of others, including in college. I’m not sure if it was just luck, but I was blessed when it came to teachers. So many were so good, and even now the lessons they taught are guiding my life. So here’s a shout out to all of them, every teacher who is starting the year. Whether it’s an academic or life lesson, how you nurture those young minds will influence so many for their entire lives, and you don’t get enough credit. Thank you all.