William Wordsworth wrote in his famous poem, The Rainbow, “The child is the father of the man.” We could just as easily say, “The student is the father of the teacher.” Just as human traits are established while young, so are teacher traits. All I ever needed to learn about who I am as a human and as a teacher, I learned, not in kindergarten, but in second grade.
Truth be told, I don’t remember much of kindergarten and first grade, except nap time, blocks, being scolded for not wanting to nap, and having my first-grade teacher tell my mother that I needed “testing.” I was never sure what my first-grade teacher, Mrs. S. (the bunned witch), meant by that. I think she meant psychological. It was before attention deficit disorder (ADD) was the easy answer. I prefer to think that she meant gifted and talented. Turns out it was probably a bit of both.
It was there that I endured Mrs. S. in class 1-3. I have one class picture of me in a cowboy outfit. I was smiling. It must have been Halloween. Like I said, I don’t remember much of first grade. I do remember not liking her and school. My memories consist of being told to keep my hands folded on the desk and my legs under it. That was hard, because the desks were bolted to the floor, and I didn’t fit. So, I kept moving my feet and legs into the aisle, for which I was scolded time and time again. “David. Put your feet under your desk. You will trip someone.” I would usually respond, “But no one is allowed to get up and walk down the aisle.” At which point, she would tell me to be quiet and, “behave yourself.” So, I would be quiet and not pay much attention, rather than get yelled at, until the next time I had to move my oversized legs from under the undersized desk.
Actually, I don’t remember much of third, fourth, or sixth grades either. I skipped fifth grade. I guess I really was gifted. I only remember sixth grade because of two reasons. One was a guy named Murray, who did the dumbest things. He was hysterical. In fact, we created a new phrase, to “pull a Murray,” which meant doing something Murray-like. (Thirteen years later, I nicknamed my wife Murray.) The second and most important reason turned out to be my most embarrassing moment in school. You know, the one when you want to hide, not only under the screwed-to-the-floor-desks, but under the floor they were screwed into. Mrs. F. was going over some spelling list I was not particularly interested in.
Actually, after second grade, there wasn’t much in school I was interested in, except playing ball in the school yard. My second-grade teacher spoiled me. Anyway, Mrs. F. was giving each person in the room a word to spell and pronounce. “Oh no,” I thought. There were enough words to reach me in my seat in the last row; I figured out which word I was going to have to spell and pronounce. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I have no idea how to pronounce it: a.w.k.w.a.r.d. What kind of ‘fuckin’ word is that?” I had never seen it, heard it spoken, let alone knew its meaning. Pretty ironic, huh? “Hmm, is it owkword? Awwwkwaaard?” (As you can tell, I learned to curse early on in life. That was far more useful than knowing awwwkwerd.) “Oh no. Does she see how panicked I am? I don’t have a clue,” and now she says, “David, please do word number twenty-six,” or whatever number it was. I fumbled for the right pronunciation, screwed it up, spelled it, then, as we all had to do back then, say it again… incorrectly, while listening to the belly laughs of my classmates and Mrs. Bitch telling me to try again. And again. And again.
Remember when I said I had skipped fifth grade? Well, that made it even worse. Not only was I the youngest in my class by about one and a half years, but I was also in a class with very few cronies who knew how smart I really was. As a result, I never forgot this experience. It was a moment that probably led me to teaching, although I didn’t realize it back then.
That takes me back to second grade. Miss Stafford was our teacher. She must have been the ripe, old age of twenty-three. We had no idea. We were seven. In 1956 and 1957, she was ancient. She was also incredible. When she passed away in 2009, several of us from her second-grade class were at her memorial service. We had no idea that our Miss Stafford would become the world renown Dr. Rita Dunn. A professor at St. John’s University for nearly forty years, she had become an authority on learning styles, an internationally renowned professor of higher education, a prolific author of thirty-two textbooks and more than four hundred fifty manuscripts and research papers, and the recipient of thirty-one professional research awards. We had no idea who she was going to become. At the time, neither did she. I wrote this in her Tribute Book: Little did we know as seven-year-olds entering Rita Stafford’s class 2-1 in PS 66, Bronx, in September of 1956, that we were to become the happy guinea pigs for a life dedicated to helping children with all kinds of ‘personalities,’ as we called it then.
People marvel when they are told of what Rita did for us. They marvel at our advanced work. They marvel at our activities. They marvel at our reunions every Christmas time for twelve years, and at our last reunion, eight years ago this month. [Forty-four years after our second-grade class.] I can’t count the number of times I have told students and teaching colleagues how we learned about the solar system by building one and hanging it from the ceiling; or about civil rights by writing letters to President Eisenhower. (We even received a reply and were quoted in The New York Times.)
She inspired me to become a teacher. Those activities were the seeds of every ‘outrageous’ activity I ever cooked up for use in my classrooms. The more I look back on my body of teaching and work, the more I see how indebted I am to her. I used a variety of styles because I knew, not intrinsically, but because I experienced it in her second-grade classroom, that they were necessary to reach more kids. Over the past twenty years or so, I have become increasingly interested in the rise of the number of underachieving boys in our society. The more I read about the subject, the more I realize that she was right on the money those fifty-three years ago. Both directly as a teacher, and indirectly, through her research and training sessions, she saved countless students from failure. I know she saved me.
Over the years, I have never stopped talking about her. In addition to students and teachers, I have spoken about her to several colleagues involved in this latest endeavor. I have told the Teach For America teachers I mentor in the Bronx about her. She is their model. I will continue to tell everyone I know about her. She was my hero. My work shall forever be in her honor and name. She proved to me that in any one year, any one teacher could make a difference to any one student. She was creative and autonomous. She was innovative and caring. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many other teachers who had a positive impact on my life. Most were and still are forgotten. Looking back I now understand how being a student totally influenced who I became as a teacher. Just as our experiences as a child influence how we parent, our experiences as a young student influence how we teach.