Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Silence for the Lunch Ladies

One of my favorite teachers in the fifth and sixth grade was Mr. M. He is one of those people who makes me happy just by existing. You know about the Mr. Ms in the world, I'm sure, and how you smile when they come to mind and how you are both purely grateful that God thought them up and continually delighted just knowing that they are out there somewhere. My Mr. M was one of the "cool teachers," and he was, I think now, born to work with kids. I never saw him angry or exasperated or looking even remotely stressed during all his teaching days, and when he was disappointed in one of us, he reprimanded us privately but effectively, losing neither his cool nor any of our fondness for him.

Only slightly taller than we were, he would often sit on his desk to teach class, and like all good teachers, he was learning right along with us. In the fall of 1988, Bobby McFerrin's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was on the radio constantly, and in class one day, Mr. M wondered aloud about one of the lyrics. "'The landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate,'" he quoted to us that morning. "I can kind of tell from the rest of the song what that means, but I don't know what 'litigate' really means, do you?" And as we called out our guesses, Mr. M reached for a dictionary and read the definition aloud. Just like that, he had discovered what the word meant! He hadn't know a second ago, but then he used the dictionary, and it helped him figure it out! This was how you learned.

In another class, we were supposed to have recorded ourselves reading something on a cassette tape player, and when Mr. M finished playing one student's recording for us, he went to turn off the recorder only to hear the girl continuing to talk about something related. It was about her grandfather, I remember, and how much she thought of him. "Oh, that's nothing, you don't have to listen to that!" she rushed to tell him as we all listened to her tape, but Mr. M shook his head and said, "You have nothing to be embarrassed about. That's how everyone should feel about their grandparents." And since he said it--Since it was Mr. M saying it--no one laughed at her, and instead we all thought about his words. Twenty-four years later, that is all I remember about Bobbi Rae: She admired her grandfather and was embarrassed and Mr. M made it better. This was how you treated people.

The hardest subjects he covered in those late 1980s classrooms were ones in which he clearly wished he didn't have the life experience that he did: Missed opportunities. Regret. Mr. M had had been a star athlete in high school and college and had had the opportunity to try out for the 1984 summer Olympics, but he didn't. He just didn't. We were now in his class five years later, but we all remembered the pep rally in the school cafeteria our little elementary school had held in his honor in 1983. I had never given it any thought after that. I doubt any of us had. But there we sat in Mr. M's classroom one day listening as he wondered aloud, while perched on top of his desk, why he hadn't tried. "What was I thinking?" he asked us. "And now I'll never know." Whenever we were blessed by such opportunities in our own lives, he told us, we needed to be brave and to see how far we could go with them and chase our dreams as hard as we could. We were not quite uncomfortable as we sat in silence watching Mr. M gaze off into the distance over our heads, his mind seeing Olympic glory that his eyes never had, but we were saddened. Our Mr. M was so wonderful, surely he could have done anything he put his mind to! Why hadn't he? It was hard for all of us to understand, and we sat together in our rows of desks in front of him a little longer, letting it all sink in, remembering the American flags and "Sam the Olympic Eagle" mascot coloring book pages we had colored for his pep rally years before. This was how you learned from someone else's mistake.

The last day before our school's Christmas vacation began in 1988, there was a rap on the door of Mr. G's room right before our sixth grade class was to head down to the cafeteria for lunch, and we all looked up to find Mr. M bounding into the room looking more mischievous than usual. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, Mr. G," he greeted our startled teacher, "But I've got an idea I want to run by your students. I just thought of a really good Christmas present we can give the lunch ladies!" We twisted around in our chairs, curious and already smiling along with him. We giggled as we listened to his plan, and even Mr. G smiled as Mr. M used his last few minutes of class time going over his idea with us. Minutes later, we all marched silently into the cafeteria, our entire sixth grade class joined by a few younger grade levels' classes, as well, a couple hundred of us making not one sound as we sat ourselves at the long brown fold-down tables and joined the line for milk, juice, and hot foods. The cafeteria staff was puzzled, but as instructed by Mr. M, we didn't let our poker faces slip, and we remained silent throughout our thirty-minute meal. Silent! A school cafeteria filled with ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old kids just a couple hours before their Christmas vacation started: Silent! By the time we were to line up to return to our classrooms again, the lunch ladies had come out from all their work stations to stand in front of us waiting to see how this rare and much-appreciated easy-on-their-ears lunch period would end. We looked to Mr. M for our cue, and when he grinned and nodded, we knew the moment had come. "MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!" we all shouted to the cafeteria staff, and our hardworking lunch ladies laughed as they realized this lovely half-hour of peace and quiet had been our gift to them. It had been Mr. M's idea, of course, but we were so thrilled with ourselves, you'd never have guessed it as we noisily chattered about it on our way back upstairs. This was how you loved people.

Many of us made the trip back to our elementary school to stop in and see him and some other favorites once we started junior high the following year . And some of my former classmates' children are likely being taught by Mr. M now. I sent him a letter my freshman year of college to tell him just how much we had loved him and his classes as kids. Mr. M is still working in our small town school district, and a recent news item in my hometown newspaper brought him to mind and made me want to write to him again, now that I am old enough to articulate why we all remember our time with him back in the 80s so fondly. The letter I send him next week will include a few old and new photos and more than a few memories, one of which will surely be our Christmas '88 silence for the lunch ladies. This was how you touched us. This was how you made us better. This was how you made a difference. This was how you were one of the cool teachers.


Nellie said...

What an amazing tribute to one of your teachers! As a retired elementary teacher, I would hope that just one of the students I taught in my 25-year + career would have as positive a feeling for the experience in my classroom as you have for Mr. M!

Happy February 1st!

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Val, I love that song and I too had Mr. M, But she was Mrs. H.
She gave me confidence in the fifth grade that I have always held onto.
Great Teachers rock!

Val said...

Thank you both. :) Here's to all the great ones! ♥

asmplelife said...

You certainly have a way with words, Val. Very nice tribute to your Mr. M. He sounds like an amazing teacher and you were all blessed to have had him in your lives.

Hope you're feeling better!

Val said...

Thank you, Cheryl. He's a gem, for sure.

racheld said...

What a heart-felt and wonderful paean to such a kind, memorable man!

May every child have a Mr. M. to guide the way.

This is one of the all-time best posts I've ever read on a blog. Brava.

Val said...

Thank you, Rachel. They're my favorite kind to write too. ♥ Thank you so much, and yes, every child should have such a great teacher.