Extra Pulp: Master Gardeners

It can't be said enough: Teachers are an absolute treasure.

David Vallejo

I always loved school. Before we were officially students, my best friend and I played pretend school in my backyard clubhouse. As first-graders, we rode our bikes seven blocks to elementary school, eager to put our freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils on paper. In second grade, I adored Mrs. Norman. When I ran into her one weekend, I was so awestruck to see her outside the classroom it was as if I’d encountered a unicorn. She later caught me starting early on a math speed test, and I was so devastated to disappoint her, I vowed never to cheat again.

In high school, we were told the toughest teachers would be our favorites. We quickly warmed up to the stern Mrs. Ebert when she unlocked the mystery of trigonometry’s sine, cosine and tangent with the mnemonic acronym, “Some Old Hippie Caught Another Hippie Trippin’ On Acid.” Mrs. Ryan constantly critiqued our grammar and public speaking, but she introduced us to Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo. Mrs. Turner gave my Heart of Darkness paper a D, but when I finally got an A on my review of Pride and Prejudice, I knew I had earned it. The legendary Mr. Threadgill enlightened an entire generation, teaching us history, humanities and acceptance for others no matter their background.

I revered Mrs. Lazzari for somehow convincing the assistant principal that her students could do anything, even if it meant leaving campus to take photos for the literary magazine. While I love using my iPhone’s portrait setting, I feel nostalgic for the darkroom—the subtle smell of chemicals, the gentle splash of water, and the anticipation of waiting for an image to emerge.

My hardest teacher of all—think Miss Viola Swamp—was in freshman typing class. One mistake and she’d shame us in front of everyone. To this day, I type quickly, accurately and with excellent posture out of pure fear.

My fondness for teachers has grown deeper now that my children are entering kindergarten and second grade. (I’m insisting that they, too, ride their bikes to school.) My oldest son, Anders, has faced more than his fair share of challenges, from speech and motor development delays to behavioral and sensory issues. Several schools have given up on him, but a handful of teachers have recognized his amazing potential. When my little seedling wasn’t flourishing like the others, teachers like Ms. Kristy, Ms. Karen and Ms. Geiger nurtured him. When Anders entered Ms. Janssen’s first grade class, he was barely reading, but with her care, he soon grew to be one of her top students.

On two occasions she asked me to substitute for her. Walking in her shoes—well, more like stumbling—I gained a profound appreciation for teachers. At all times, I was exactly one second away from losing complete control of two dozen 6- and 7-year-olds. My first mistake was sending the entire class to the bathroom after lunch, before learning that Ms. Janssen sends them in orderly fashion, three at a time. I looked around the empty classroom in a panic, praying they all returned. When it was time for computer lab, one boy refused to get out from under his desk and cried so loudly, the counselor heard him next door and swooped in to rescue us.

Besides teaching children how to read and do mind-boggling common core math, Ms. Janssen must deal with potty accidents, vomiting episodes, runny noses, emotional outbursts and discipline problems. Anders lost not one, but two teeth in her classroom. Each time, his bloody tooth came home in a neatly labeled Ziploc—something I’m sure is not part of her job description.

When one child can’t afford the 75-cent popcorn or the $3 field trip, often it’s the teachers who pitch in their own money. My cousin was teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in New Orleans when she realized two of her teenage Vietnamese students were nearly blind. She took them to the optometrist to get them glasses, in her free time and on her teacher’s salary. Teachers don’t just teach. They are social workers. They are saints.

An article written by education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez compares teachers to marigolds: “If you plant a marigold beside most any garden vegetable, that vegetable will grow big and strong and healthy, protected and encouraged by its marigold.” Teachers are planted into the lives of children to help them thrive and become their very best. These seemingly ordinary flowers possess so much strength and power. In the garden of our life, they are an eternal bright spot.

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