It is Thanksgiving time and I have been considering the many things I am thankful for and wondering what I should write about. There were too many things from which to choose, so instead I sat down to read the newspaper. One thing I am thankful for is that when I read the obituaries, I’m not there. But when I read them this time there was something more.
I am a shy person by nature. As a child I was not only shy, but almost totally bereft of any social skills. I grew up on a farm and had a better understanding of plants and animals than I did of people. Thus, when I turned six years old and found myself thrust into the traumatic experience of first grade, I was totally lost and afraid.
To make matters worse, my parents did not believe in kindergarten. My father felt it was just coloring and play time and he expected his children to go to school to work and learn. For that reason, as I entered my first grade experience, I found myself behind the other children, knowing nothing of the alphabet or numbers. I was immediately labeled the class dunce.
It was my teacher’s first year. She was young and pretty. But she allowed the name calling to continue and indeed seemed to foster it by putting me off by myself and stating that if the other children did not work hard and behave, they would be forced to sit by me as punishment.
She did not feel it was her job to bring someone up to the pace of the rest of the class. I actually thought she liked me because she let me color or do as I pleased as long as I didn’t bother her. I wouldn’t have minded school that much except for the teasing and torment I endured at recess.
I had been in school for a couple of months when my life suddenly changed. The other first grade teacher had to leave due to surgery, and a small lady with big glasses came in to substitute for a couple of months. She happened to see me sitting alone at my table in the back of the classroom and wanted to know why. I heard my teacher tell her I was too dumb to learn, and I nodded my head in agreement, for by this time I had come to believe it myself. “May I take him into my class?” the lady asked.
My teacher just shrugged. “Whatever.”
I soon found myself in a new class, nervous and still feeling very much alone, but with a teacher that was determined that I was going to learn. I had to stay in many recesses to learn the alphabet. Because I no longer could do as I pleased, I thought this new teacher hated me. I had yet to learn that true love is looking beyond what a person thinks they want in order to help them reach their greater potential. She involved my mother and it took both of them to help me believe that I truly could learn.
As I finally started reading, writing, and understand numbers, a whole new world opened up to me. My horizons started to expand and I couldn’t get enough. By the time the regular teacher came back and the substitute teacher left, I was one of the top readers in the class.
As I grew older, this lady often substituted in classes I was in. I grew taller and stronger, but never lost that great desire for learning that she had unlocked in my heart those many years earlier. When I became one of the football team captains and a wrestling team captain, if someone was giving her a hard time in a class she was substituting in, it became my opportunity to stand up for her.
As I stood to speak at graduation as one of the four valedictorians, she was there to tell me she was proud of me. I knew a lot of the reason I was there was because of her.
I never ran into her but what she would ask, “How’s my boy?” and then listen with true interest about what had happened to me in life.
Now, today, as I read a short column about a life well lived, a column that can’t possibly give the full depth of what someone has done for others, words seem inadequate. But what I say I say with all of my heart. Mrs. Emaline Strange, my teacher and friend, thank you.