This time of year always brings bittersweet memories as I reflect on another school year almost brought to closure – children’s school journeys ending in June’s transition to summer. Most years end with great joy, but I have for many years remembered one that did not.
I still can see tiny faces before me as if it was yesterday despite the passing of decades. They were kindergarteners lacking certainty as to why they were gathered on the rug with me, their principal, a teaching assistant and some of their parents, so early on a Monday morning.
I remember this as the hardest of times when I had to share with these kindergarteners just before the end of the school year that their teacher had died in a car accident. What do you say about a man who chose to teach at age 40? A man with an undergraduate degree in biology from an Ivy League school and a masters in instrumental music from Julliard? A man who chose to go back and get a second masters in early childhood education because he discovered working in the most important profession on earth was worth a career change even if the money wasn’t great? What do you say to children about a man who taught them to recognize at age five alligator jump rhythms in Blues tunes, to eat with chopsticks, to write down stories about their block cities and to sing and dance every day?
Some parents chose to keep their children home so they could share this sad news. Others wanted their children to hear about it at school. By lunchtime, the whole school community was in mourning. Children had tough questions for staff. Some teachers struggled more than others. Tears flowed off and on all day long. The counselor and I pitched in to give teachers breaks to grieve.
It was one tough day in my profession but as with all days it turned into the next and then the next. Sharp memories of that day faded to soft ones of him with children gathered in front of his rocking chair and a day his mother came to class to share her spinning wheel. I smile now at the memory of him coming to the office for help in the first few months of his career because his kindergarteners had “glued” themselves to the playground equipment and refused to come inside. At the time it was a bit frustrating but reminiscing this evening I can appreciate their creative approach to extending recess time.
This teacher taught two years of kindergarten classes and student taught in my school before he died. His classes ran more like a design studio than even the typical child-centered kindergarten of that day and time. I think we might label his room today as a maker space – blocks everywhere, easels with paint always at the ready, kitchen and woodworking centers with one of those old-school record players spinning in the background. I never knew when I dropped by on my daily walkabouts whether children would be listening to Mozart or Count Basie. Literacy was embedded in books tied to his and his students’ interests – architecture, counting books, the world’s folktales, nonfiction picture reference books, and anything with a Caldecott Award.
That June he was working hard at becoming a teacher but still experiencing challenges despite far more maturity than the typical novice. I learned from him that transitioning to teaching is not as easy as career switchers sometimes think it will be. Sadly, he never had the chance to become the teacher he planned and wanted to become. I still grieve that chance unfulfilled.
I was reminded of him in a visit this past week to the school where he taught and its courtyard long ago redesigned as an Asian garden in his memory, a tribute from the children in his class.
Those children are all grown now, some with families of their own. Out of the nest years ago, they’ve spread far and wide even though a few have come back home to roost in classrooms of their own. Today, a different generation of children inhabit the school, its playgrounds, and natural areas.
We never know what children take away from us or how long our influence will be sustained within them. Yet, a former student from this now long-deceased teacher’s class shared with me memories of kindergarten – a tall man reading stories, calling children to look at a block city, and walking with them along the nature trail. She still knew him by name.
Those rich memories of hers are ones I too still cherish about this man, his brief teaching career now lost in time as the summers of life come and go. Yet, in that brief time, he brought learning to children in unique ways I’ve rarely seen since.