In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, there was a FB post that asked “friends” to list all the teachers you could remember. I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Alt. That is all I remember, her name, desks in rows. Lining up to use the bathroom. I remember throwing up in a book I was reading and the boy who sat beside me telling me the next day, “Thanks, I had to clean it up.” I am sure it was traumatic for both of us.
Flash forward five years to Mr. O’Connell, the next teacher I remember. To be fair, I remember school, classes, friends, but the teachers are faceless. Sixth grade, and I got Mr. O’Connell.
I was in elementary school in the late sixties and early seventies. I attended a brand new “open concept” school that I think used a “learn at your own pace” method. The reading program consisted of SRA cards that you read, answered questions and moved to the next card. I remember completing them rotely, with little joy, maybe a sense of accomplishment because I could whip through them pretty quickly… maybe even competitively.
Sixth Grade. Mr. O’Connell started the year by reading aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” We sat on the floor, every single one of us completely engrossed. We all cried, boys, girls, the “tough kids,” all of us, we cried when it ended. I discovered The Love of Reading that year. A bit of a dreamer, reading took me places and got me through the angst of the awkward adolescent years, mostly spent, clueless, lost in a book.
Regarding that sixth grade year, there are not a lot of specific memories beyond “Where the Red Fern Grows” that I can share about Mr. O’Connell. Did he play the guitar and sing to us? Maybe. Or maybe it was another teacher, but with Mr. O’Connell, the thing I remember was more a feeling. A feeling of love for his students. A feeling of connection with his students – I honestly believed he cared about us. The last day of school he read a poem. In that poem, he wrote about us. Us! He touched our hearts and by the time I got on the school bus to go home I was sniffling. And when my mother met that bus I threw myself at her, completely sobbing, grief stricken.
So when I saw this FB post I started thinking about Mr. O’Connell. I had asked my mom once about him, he was in Juneau she thought, working for the department of Education. Curious, I started cyber-sleuthing. A quick search came up with his name, and sadly, his obituary.
As I read that obituary, I realized he really only taught in Anchorage a few years, and our stars aligned so that I was in the same school the same years that he taught. The year I had him he was named Anchorage’s “Teacher of the Year.” Just that fact alone confirmed my faith in my memories of him, he was as fantastic as I remember.
The obituary went on to tell me more. He attended the same college that my middle daughter chose. He grew up in Southeast Alaska, even lived in the same town I live in now, Ketchikan. The picture painted was of an educated, spiritual man, who was a dedicated educator, devoted to his family.
And so, sixth grade over, and many years later, as I navigated my education coursework, I always held an image, sort of a feeling or a memory of that sixth grade classroom in the back corner of my mind. Even when I wasn’t thinking about it, it was there, guiding me through my own career path. I love being a teacher. I love being a reader. And I think…. No I am sure, that both of those things were nurtured in me, sitting on the carpet of a sixth grade classroom listening to Mr. O’Connell read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.”