Today is a good day to thank a teacher

Friday, March 2, 2012

If I have accomplished anything in life, I owe an enormous debt to the many teachers who have influenced me.

My mother was a teacher. She taught in one-room schools in the Ozarks over yonder in the 1950s. She wound up teaching at schools with names like Shady Nook, Mill Creek, Otter Creek, Dale and King. The last one was the same school she had attended in her elementary years. It was named for her grandfather Samuel King. When that school later was consolidated, like so many others, into a larger school district, my mother bought the school building and property. I don't know what her plans were, but she eventually sold King School, and the red-granite WPA structure was transformed into a lovely family home.

Last week and early this week was the annual teachers tournament on "Jeopardy!" My wife and I have been addicted to that show for years. We each pick our favorites and cheer them on, win or lose.

Host Alex Trebek asked one of the contestants to repeat something she had said during a commercial break. The teacher lauded those in her profession who so often spend their own money on students in need and on supplies for their classrooms. It was a touching tribute, and it struck home with me.

My mother spent a considerable amount of her hard-earned dollars on her students. Some needed warm coats. Others needed shoes. It was customary in the 1950s for students to go barefoot until the first frost. Some families couldn't afford new shoes, and if there wasn't a hand-me-down pair, some children continued to walk to school in bare feet even when the mornings were frosty. My mother also paid for eye exams for students with obvious visions problems.

Discretion was a big part of my mother's generosity. I didn't know until her funeral, for example, that the woman who played the piano received her earliest musical instruction because my mother paid the 50 cents a week for piano lessons from Mrs. Handford.

While teaching at one country school, my mother took a particular interest in her 12 students from just three families in eight grades. Six of those students were from the same family, a family that included an infant brother. My mother went to see the newborn and to visit with its mother and to encourage her efforts to send her freshly scrubbed children to school in clean, ironed clothes.

A few months later came tragic news: The baby had died. My mother, of course, went to the funeral. And she decided it was time for me to experience a funeral. It was my first, and I was both excited and fearful.

A small group gathered at the tiny church where the funeral was held, including the dead child's immediate family, my mother and me. The baby's mother wailed and moaned, and I sat frightened on a hard pew with my eyes fixed on the snow-white infant-sized casket.

More than 50 years later, when we cleaned out my mother's house, I found an envelope with the name of a familiar funeral home on it. Inside was a bill for a white casket for $175. Paid in full. By my mother. For an infant whose family had no money for a funeral. A family that included six of her students.

Also among my mother's undiscarded papers were the teaching contracts she had signed. That year, at Mill Creek School, she was paid $800 for an eight-month teaching term.

Minus $175 for a casket. And who knows how much more for glasses, shoes and warm coats.

Yes, teachers are generous. If you haven't done so recently, today would be a good day to call one up and say "Thank you."

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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