Yesterday, my wife Beatrice completed her last day of teaching fifth graders — probably forever. This brings to a close a 25-year chapter that I believe is most distinguished by her day-to-day insistence on completely ignoring the political debate surrounding the general mess that is public education; getting up at 5 a.m., preparing her lessons and hitting the ground with the sole purpose of meeting her solemn responsibility to the kids with whom she is charged to educate.
Well done, love. Damn well done.
I never, ever had the slightest doubt that her kids were getting the best deal that could be had anywhere — in spite of what might be going on elsewhere, here and there, around this and that, turning on this issue and that. For Bea, that was all for others to concern themselves with. She was too busy worrying about how Johnny, Juan, Pham, Karesh, Omar, Quan, Cindy and Samantha were going to exceed the requirements she placed on them.
She commands the utmost respect of peers, subordinates, and seniors; not for her work for the teacher’s union (she does none, and pays no attention); not for her work in showing parents who’s boss (they are, if they’re reasonable, and most are when dealt with respectfully); but for her dedication and success in producing accomplished fifth graders — year in, year out. Nary a month goes by where Bea and I don’t run into a former student somewhere. This has been going on for the decade I’ve known her and I have never seen anything but adoration. Kids will come out of nowhere — in their 20s and even 30s by now — and plant a hug on her. Grown men. While still at school after a day’s session, former students — now in Junior High and High School — will go out of their way to stop by her classroom to say ‘hi’ and sometimes to lend a hand with anything she might need doing.
We regularly receive dinner invitations from parents and some have even become close friends over the years; and we’re invited to every important event in their lives. She is showered with gifts every year’s end, and not only from the current year’s crop — yesterday, for example, a $300 gift card to Nordstrom from parents from last year, 2006.
Not a year goes by when she’s not warned about some 4th grader or two that are real problems and that she’d better be ready. She just smiles, goes about her business, and far more often than not, has the parents of those problem kids falling all over her in gratitude for how she focussed them and changed them in the course of nine months — not to mention the nodding acknowledgment of other teachers who had fallen short of the task.
Obviously, with 25-years under her belt, I could go on; and on.
It’s not all about her, of course, for it’s hard to imagine a 10-yr-old who isn’t good at heart. I know. There simply — in most cases — has not been enough time to make them bad to the bone. So in large measure, her task is about motivating them to rise to what’s already inside them and eager to be shown. She told a story about "Tom" the other night over dinner. At the end of every year she has a "Teacher for a Day" contest, where kids must prepare an entire lesson on something of interest to them and present it to the class in a teaching, question, and answer format. Tom didn’t really understand the assignment and emailed Bea. She emailed back, telling him to wait for the next day were it could better be explained in person. Not good enough. "I must understand now, Mrs. Nikoley; PLEASE! Tell me now." So she did. She wrote out simpler instructions in email she thought he would better understand, and he did. He presented an entire lesson on the subject of Egyptian Pyramids, Pharos, mummification, and so on. The class was dead silent and riveted, Bea recounts. At the end, completely uncharacteristically, the entire class breaks out in applause.
The rest of the story? "Tom’s" real name is Thong, and he arrived on the shores of America last April — 2 1/2 months ago — from Vietnam. He spoke virtually no English but reads the dictionary night and day. After the presentation, when Bea told him he had done a good job he said it was easy. "It only took one day." What he meant was that it took an entire day. He had worked all night in order to be prepared. At 10 years old.
Now Bea moves on to another chapter and another big challenge. As much as she loved teaching (as a girl, she maintained a classroom in her parent’s garage and charged neighborhood kids 50 cents per lesson; she never knew a time she didn’t want to be a school teacher) it was beginning to wear on her because it had become routine and less of a challenge. And plus, she didn’t get as much satisfaction in mentoring new teachers as she used to. Bea completed a master’s degree in counseling just about the time I met her, but a suitable position never opened up. Well, finally, the district created a position and Bea gets to design the program. She’ll be working with severely problematic junior high students, splitting her time between two schools. It will be her focus to either get the kids into serious professional help if that’s the call, or otherwise to assist them to figure out what they want out of their lives and to pursue the necessary academic and personal goals to get them on their way.
She’s going to have to learn to deal with failure far more than she’s ever had to, but I haven’t the slightest doubt in the world that in years and decades hence, hundreds of kids for whom it could have gone a lot worse are going to owe their very lives to my wife. There’s just no doubt about it. I know what she’s made of and she simply won’t give up where there’s any chance.
You go, sweetheart.