Teacher Tim Remembers
One of the reasons I have a mania for collecting sea shells is that it gives me a perfectly good excuse to walk along the sea shore at sunrise. The surf is usually mild and I take off my Crocks so I can let my feet sink into the wave-washed sand. A good time for pondering.
This past Sunday I was out looking for volutes and cats paws when a magnificent sunrise burst before me like a silent atomic bomb – towering white clouds over the Gulf of Thailand, tinged with every color conceivable, reflected off the ocean surface in a billion sapphires and rubies.
I said to myself: “This is a sunrise I am going to remember!”
And then, because of my glum Norwegian blood, I asked myself: “I wonder if anyone is going to remember me as well as I am going to remember this sunrise?”
I suppose my children will remember me – it’s hard to father eight children by one woman and not be recalled from time to time – whether fondly or not is another matter. But as I bent down to contest ownership of a fine mollusk shell with a hermit crab I began to wonder if any of my English students here in Thailand would ever remember me. Would they?
This led me to reach back into my own mental lumber room for memories of the teachers that made an impression. And why I remember them.
Mrs. Redd, in second grade, had, strangely enough, flaming red hair. In American schools you don’t really learn a lot in the second grade – they are still trying to get you used to the regimented thinking required to last you through high school. So we cut out a lot of stuff from colored construction paper and finger painted like little fiends – at least, that’s what I remember. I also remember that Mrs. Redd had us draw a bird, any bird we wanted, for an upcoming white elephant sale at school. I chose to draw a dodo bird. So there were 26 robins and blue jays being drawn, and one dodo bird. I was the butt of many feeble gibes from my fellow classmates – most of whom had no idea what a dodo bird was but thought the repetition in the name was reason enough to ridicule me. I was on the verge of tearing up my dodo bird and starting over with a robin when Mrs. Redd stopped me by saying “Why Timmy, I’ve never seen a dodo bird drawn before – I’m looking forward to seeing what yours looks like!” And that’s all it took to give a little boy enough courage to stand out from the crowd for once.
Mr. Berg was my sixth grade teacher. Rather a stern disciplinarian, too. He carried some inward scars from the Korean War and didn’t much care for a noisy classroom – and let us know in loud and certain terms that silence was golden. He drilled us without mercy with fractions and the mysteries of geometry and geography. But one soft spring day, when the buds had burst from their brown shells on the elm trees and the lilac-heavy air had that gauzy, heady aroma of finely spun cotton candy, Mr. Berg stood looking out the window after lunch and threw away his lesson plans for the rest of the week. Instead he read to us Scott O’Dell’s The Island of Blue Dolphins. We all drowsed and dreamed through that week to the sound of Mr. Berg’s mellow, baritone voice. I don’t know that I learned anything from that – I just know that it is a little episode I can recall with pleasure nearly fifty years later.
And then there was Mr. Chow. I attended Marshall-University High School, which was right next door to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At the time there were dozens of Chinese exchange students at the U from Taiwan – Mainland China was making one of its frequent threats to invade the tiny island nation, so families that could were sending their sons overseas to be out of danger. The U asked my high school if they would be interested in having a native Chinese speaker come teach Chinese (since J. Edgar Hoover had darkly hinted if America didn’t shape up pretty soon we’d all be forced to speak it) – and so by some bureaucratic legerdemain I was chosen to be in Mr. Chow’s Chinese class. He was pretty old for a university student – in his 40’s. And I regret to say I never paid much attention to the tones or practiced my calligraphy as I should have – so don’t ask me to speak Mandarin. I can’t. But one weekend he invited all 12 of us students over to his apartment in Dinkytown for a real Chinese meal. And it was very good. Nothing at all like the take-out my dad would bring home when my mother didn’t feel like cooking dinner. Why did he do it? We were just a bunch of careless, arrogant, American kids, who didn’t know where Taiwan was, and didn’t really care. In fact, as American teenagers, we didn’t care about anything. But Mr. Chow cared about something – I guess he cared about us. And I still remember that.