Fifty years ago this
week marked the beginning of summer recess for my 4th
grade class in southern New Jersey. A wonderful week, made all the more so with my first trip
to Girl Scout Camp just a few days away. And
yet, the long-awaited summer vacation and the prospect
of going away from home for two whole weeks couldn’t quell
the sadness I felt at having to say goodbye to Mrs. Cunningham.
Gertrude N. Cunningham
was that teacher everyone says they remember, one teacher
who made a big difference in their life. But no, Mrs.
Cunningham was so much more. She guided me from early
childhood to student-hood, from looking inward, to seeing
myself as part of the larger world, from lost little child
to capable young woman.
On the first day of
4th grade, we learned we would each be creating a yearbook.
I’m sure none of us understood all that implied for the
year ahead, but that first day, we learned to cut letters
from construction paper. We cut new letters for new words
every week, turning construction paper into the titled
pages of our yearbooks. Sometimes, we even made a second
set of letters to provide depth and interest to a page
title. And on every page, we pasted the history of each
day of 4th grade.
To hone arithmetic
skills, Mrs. Cunningham had four 100-question tests for
addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, respectively.
We’d wind paper around a ruler to create a thin strip
of paper, place it under the questions of a test, and
unwind the paper as we progressed through it. The tests
never varied, and before the end of the year, all of us
could complete each 100-question test in under the allotted
time of two minutes. Some of those folded answer pages
went into the yearbook.
I began 4th grade
hating to read, having to sit for yet another year in
a “reading circle” and read aloud while knowing I was
making a terrible mess of it. In Mrs. Cunningham’s class,
she gently guided me through difficult phrases and helped
us write our own stories. She was interested in our opinions
of what we read, and that year, I read 25 books – an amazing
accomplishment for me. My own stories and a few book reports
found places in my yearbook.
I’m certain that earlier teachers had seen in me a very
small child who had lost her mother to breast cancer,
a child who daydreamed, with no one all that aware of
the mind’s tortured process of trying to grow without
understanding so grave a loss, Mrs. Cunningham saw in
me the person I could grow to be. She recognized that
I could memorize and sing, and she understood why a girl
who tested consistently in the 99th percentile on standardized
tests would do poorly in school. She kept me so active,
I had little time to withdraw into myself, and instead,
began to achieve and grow.
She wrote our class
play to be a trip around the world, and while we did group
dances and songs about one country after another, she
wrote for me a piece about Marie Curie to memorize and
recite on that gigantic All-Purpose Room stage. “Marie
Skłodowska Curie was born in Warsaw,
Poland in 1867. She began to earn her living when
she was seventeen years old by giving lessons to children
of wealthy parents.” And somehow, she helped my timid
self to get up on the stage and project my voice to the
back of the room.
We learned to square dance when the weather was too bad for outdoor recess.
Over the course of the winter, we each made a cloth doll,
sewing and stuffing it and making clothes to represent
various countries. I don’t believe there was a “teachable
moment” left untaught, or an approach to teaching left
untried. Mrs. Cunningham lit something in me, a curiosity
to learn and try and experience.
One day, we arrived
at school to find sheets of corrugated cardboard, grommets,
brown craft paper and varnish. We covered the cardboard
with the craft paper, learned how to install grommets
through which we would later thread the twine to created
a cover and binding for our masterpieces. Next came the
varnishing of the 13” x 19” yearbooks – I have no idea
how she managed twenty-eight children, each with their
own front & back cover, wet varnish drying on them,
upwards of eighty pages per book, all of us competing
only with ourselves to have better and better examples
of work to include on our pages.
She took individual
photos of each child and had copies made so that each
of us could put our own photo on the cover of our Yearbook,
and fill pages with photos of the rest of the class. Now,
fifty years later, I look at those faces, especially the
one inside the front cover.
We were told that
the inside front cover had to be left blank, and the last
week of school, we learned why. That was to be her page,
with her photo and her favorite poem. Looking at her photo
now, I realize she couldn’t have been over thirty. Mrs.
Cunningham, beautiful in every way. Her favorite poem,
recently re-popularized by Coach John Wooden, shows its
age, and yet still speaks to Mrs. Cunningham’s enthusiasm
and sincere interest in each of her young students:
"They Ask Me
Why I Teach"
By Glennice Harmon
They ask me why I teach
And I reply, "Where could I find more splendid company?"
There sits a statesman,
Strong, unbiased, wise,
Another later Webster
And there a doctor
Whose quick, steady hand
Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood's flow.
A builder sits beside him --
Upward rise the arches of a church he built wherein
That minister will speak the word of God,
And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.
And all about
A lesser gathering
Of farmers, merchants, teachers,
Who work and vote and build
And plan and pray
into a great tomorrow.
And, I say,
"I may not see the church,
Or hear the word,
Or eat the food their hands will grow."
And yet -- I may.”
And later I may say,
"I knew the lad, and he was strong,
Or weak, or kind, or proud
Or bold or gay.
I knew him once,
But then he was a boy."
They ask me why I
teach and I reply,
"Where could I find more splendid company?"
As we left her classroom
that last day of school, she stood at the door, as usual,
and said goodbye to each of us. I asked her if I could
give her a kiss, and she gave me her cheek.
She taught for over
40 years. That’s over eleven hundred of us who were fortunate
to have been in her class. And I’m sure there are many
of those eleven hundred who remember Mrs. Cunningham as
“that teacher.” I think of her often, knowing what a huge
positive influence she has been in my life. Thank you,
We must respect and
honor great teachers and support education. In giving
themselves to their “splendid company,” teachers form
the next generation, and guide our children to life’s
possibilities. What could be more important?
lived until 1987]
BlackCommentator.com Managing Editor, Nancy Littlefield, has had a diverse career
in human services, corporate finance and writing. She
has been with BlackCommentator.com since 2005. Click here
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