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BlackCommentator.com: Thank You, Mrs. Cunningham - By Nancy Littlefield - BlackCommentator.com Managing Editor

   
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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. BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?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.

While 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
Summerville, Georgia

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
Silver-tongued.
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,
Laborers, men
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, Mrs. Cunningham.

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?

[Mrs. Cunningham 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 to contact Nancy.

 
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June 23, 2011 - Issue 432
is published every Thursday
Est. April 5, 2002
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Publisher:
Peter Gamble
BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?

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