Dedicated to Mr. Z
This coming September my daughter will start kindergarten. Emmy will join hundreds of other adorable, curious, playful and crafty five year olds in the Gloucester Public School System. I know public schools pretty well because I have dedicated 13 years of my life to teaching in one. Although my classroom is not located here in our beautiful city, there are some commonalities and truths that exist in all public school settings. Let me share a story that highlights the most important one.
The Country Schoolroom. 1871. Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
The overwhelming majority of school teachers love their job and their students. Once I enter my classroom each day, I am fully present. My students get all of my attention. I notice them. I know when they didn’t get enough sleep. I know when it’s their birthday or when they won their big game the night before. I know when something is bothering them. I am always in their corner. I am their number one fan when those that love them the most can’t physically be there to cheer them on. My students make me laugh daily and every so often one of them makes me cry.
Just recently, one of my students brought tears of happiness to my eyes. Every year I strive to help my students improve their public speaking skills. This is something we work on all year long, starting in September, so we are ready for our big debate on the death penalty come March. Most middle schoolers hate standing in front of the classroom. Long gone are the days where they thrived off of sharing their prized possession during “show and tell.” The majority of my 8th graders squirm at the thought of having all of their peers focusing solely upon them. But none of my students hated it more this year than Finn.
I still remember the expression that came upon Finn’s face when I told all 80 of my students that my personal goal was to help them all improve their public speaking skills. A panic stricken Finn fidgeted in his seat and planned for the worst. During his first experience in front of the classroom his fear weighed heavily upon this performance. He rocked side to side, from left foot to right foot. He spoke as fast as a student exiting the building on the last day of school in hopes that his suffering would soon end. He barely looked up at his audience. When his turn was over, he sighed in deep relief and listened for my critique and suggestions for improvement. Finn listened intently to my words and all I could do was hope that they would resonate.
Since that day, Finn and his classmates have had multiple opportunities to speak in front of the class. Each time I observed Finn with a watchful eye and afterwards highlighted his strengths and weaknesses. Each time, Finn listened hard and showed slight improvements with his next delivery. The swaying was becoming less extreme, the “ummms” were almost a thing of the past. No more sweaty palms.
Fast forward to March 17th, a day rumored to be laced with luck. It marked the second day of our death penalty debate. Eli, a naturally strong orator, took to the podium to prove that the death penalty is far too much of a financial burden on state taxpayers. Upon hearing his classmate and opponent finish his introduction, Finn rose to challenge him. What happened next was magical, despite having happened on a day shrouded in Irish luck, there was nothing lucky about Finn’s performance.
Finn delivered a strong rebuttal to Eli’s argument. Eli came back even stronger. This pattern continued for 18 minutes straight. For 18 minutes, I watched two young men demonstrate eloquence, passion and intellect. They became the educators in the room. Their peers reacted in such awe that it brought tears to my eyes. After 13 years in education, I was immediately reminded of why I wanted to teach in the first place. I have always believed that all kids can truly achieve academic excellence. But I also wholeheartedly know that all kids can experience that “magic” during the years they spend in the public school’s system. And when it happens, the student will gain the type of confidence that will transfer far beyond classroom walls.
Although I would not want time to pass any faster than it already has, I do look forward to the day when Emmy has her transformative moment in school. The moment that inspires her to come home beaming, not because of a crush or because she got invited to a dance, but because her teacher made her feel brilliant, like the star of the show.
This magical moment is different for all. Finn’s came loud and openly in front of his peers. My moment was a silent exchange between a student and teacher. When Mr. Ziergebel marked my fictional piece with an A+ and told me “you sure can write,” my mind was forever altered. It may have taken me almost 20 years later to gain the courage to actually share my writings with the world, but I know it never would have happened had my 9th grade English teacher not made me feel that kind of special.
Lori Sanborn was born in Gloucester and returned to live permanently in our seaside community three years ago. She has been a public educator for 12 years, teaching eighth graders. Lori is most proud of her role as mother to her children, Emerson and Ryder.