June 24, 2016


Back to school is a new beginning

There are so many things I forget, but I can rattle off the names of my teachers as easily as I can recite the alphabet.

Miss Killen, Mrs. Ebersole, Mrs. Nunn, Miss Guenter, Mrs. Nichols, Mrs. McLravy, Mr. Finchem, Miss Thurston, Mr. Mussellman. That’s just kindergarten through junior high. I’ll save the ink in reciting all my high school and college teachers, professors and coaches, but I could do it.

Besides parents and grandparents, few people have a greater impact on our young lives than teachers. After all, during the school day, kids spend as many waking hours in the care of teachers and staff as they spend with their own families. Teachers become not just instructors, but role models — especially for kids who have a rough go of it at home due to family troubles or disinterested parents.

I may have learned deeper things in philosophy and psychology classes. I may have learned more complicated things in grammar and science. But I don’t think I’ve learned anything that’s been as useful to me every day of my life as learning to type.

Mrs. Cherrington-Watson was my high school typing teacher. She was tan and tiny and grandmotherly, with big bracelets that jingled on her thin wrists.

This was in the last century, when the only computers I knew about were on “Star Trek.” We learned to type on ancient, battleship-gray, manual Underwood typewriters. Square and heavy, they could have been laid-up like blocks to construct an impromptu nuclear fallout shelter.

I remember Mrs. Cherrington-Watson’s bracelets dancing as she raised her hands and moved her fingers in the air, pressing imaginary typewriter keys as she led us through our typing exercises, like a conductor leading an orchestra.

As kindly as she was, she did not hesitate to kick a reluctant typist out of the nest. Mrs. Cherrington-Watson sometimes folded a little tent from a piece of typing paper and taped it over the typewriter so we could not see our hands on the keyboard. Like learning to swim or ride a bike, there comes a time when you have to let go of the edge of the pool and take off the training wheels.

By forcing us to type with our fingers and not with our eyes, Mrs. Cherrington-Watson wasn’t just teaching us to navigate the alphabet soup of letters on a keyboard. It also was a lesson in faith, in self-confidence.

When we type by looking at the keys, it’s because we are afraid of hitting the wrong key. She gave us permission to make mistakes, which may have been the best lesson of all. In life and in typing, you are going to hit some clunkers. Hunting and pecking is a good existence for a chicken, but not for a person. You make a mistake, you learn, you get better. Pretty soon you’re typing away, swimming like a fish, riding on two wheels.

Sometimes you’ll hear a baseball coach say about a struggling pitcher: “He just needs to learn to trust his stuff.” Mrs. Cherrington-Watson taught us to trust our stuff.

That’s what the good teachers do — and parents, grandparents, friends and role models. They teach us not only how to do things, but how to be.

One of our children’s elementary school teachers, Mrs. Wilson, has a saying about punctuality, which we have adapted as a law at our house: If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, you’re in trouble.

I don’t care if you are a fourth-grader or the CEO of a large company, that is how to be. It’s a lesson in planning your time, being responsible and respecting others. My kids know: When Dad is driving, be ready to leave early or beware.

The more the news goes on about state education policy and school funding, the more conscious I am of teachers and staff quietly going to work as usual — typing up schedules, preparing classrooms, conducting practices, running band camps.

Politicians and the public give a lot of lip service to teachers and school staff, expressing appreciation for the equal parts caring and skill they bring to their jobs. I’m not sure we do as good a job of actually showing our appreciation by way of a note, an act of support, or a wave to a school bus driver.

I miss the feeling of back-to-school, that sense of starting over with a fresh pack of notepaper, pencils with sharp tips and full erasers, wearing stiff new shoes. It’s a celebration of new opportunities and wide-open possibilities.

A colleague once told me the good thing about being a grown-up is you don’t have to finish a bad book or a bad meal. In other words, you don’t need to go back-to-school shopping to start over. When it comes to deciding how to be, we can make a new beginning every day.

So here’s to back-to-school — for teachers and staff, for students in school, and for those of us who are still simply students of life. Be grateful, be punctual, trust your stuff. And have a good year.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@frontier.com or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.