Just last weekend, the four of us made our way up the stairs following the familiar industrial smell of a still-new school to the room in the corner. It wasn’t the room I would always remember her in, but it’s where she’d landed the last few years, in this corner pocket of the second floor doing the work that never sounded like work to her at all. It was just who she was, who she is, who she’ll always be: Mrs. Brown of the fourth grade.
And on this warm spring Sunday with the smell of freshly cut grass wafting through the windows I saw our three generations: My mom, a 30-year veteran of the classroom, looking at her last weeks in the classroom before retirement. Me, the daughter who somehow always understood that to be like my mother was to find a classroom. And my three kids, each armed with a basket that they could fill with whatever they wanted from the cabinets and bookshelves and drawers.
Mementos from Mrs. Brown’s classroom.
Leave it to my kids to offer an unsolicited revelation. After an hour and a half of reading book jackets, opening boxes and laughing at cassette tapes and analog clocks, Evan said: “I didn’t know what to expect when Grandma said we should come to her room. This was really cool!”
Of course I knew what it meant to come to my mom’s classroom. In some ways I was raised there. Afternoons when school was over, Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons. My mom taught me to love everything about school: washing the chalk board, putting up bulletin boards, researching the Oregon Trail, and raiding the sticker drawer. But my kids didn’t really know this part of their grandma the way I did.
Where they saw a file cabinet, I saw a master teacher’s collective thinking. Where they saw a big banana on a wall with kids’ pictures and daily jobs, I saw her sitting at a sewing machine making yet another display of bringing care into the classroom. Where they saw tall bookshelves with new treasures, I saw hot summer afternoons spent in libraries and bookstores finding those “just right” additions for the kids she hadn’t met but seemed to already know.
Where they saw Grandma’s classroom, I saw the touchstones of a professional life that she so selflessly committed to each year, each week, each day. If you asked her, though, she wouldn’t talk about the profession, she would tell you about the children. About Trent who always stood on his desk, about Lacey who seemed like an old soul, about what was best in each of them, in all of them.
My mother. She was my first teacher. She taught me about doing work you love and never going to a job. She taught me that being a teacher isn’t about being perfect, but about getting better. She taught me that we never stop learning and unconditional love is the gift that helps others grow their passions. Everything that’s good about me in the classroom today has some tether to her, to her classroom, to how she lived “teacher.”
And as she closes that door this spring, I hope she knows the decades of doors she’s opened for children, colleagues, for us. She reminds me why we have Teacher Appreciation Week: to thank the un-thanked, to revive the tired, to grace the uncertain with the certainty that their tireless commitment to young people may look like a bulletin board or birthday wall, but it’s the lasting impact of believing in someone who didn’t know to believe in herself.