Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Old Mrs. Young

This was first accepted and then rejected last minute by the National Education Association. So in honor of all good teachers, with a new school year underway, I am posting this essay on my blog.


Inner-city students who came into contact with Mrs. Young, a veteran 8th grade teacher felt her wrath and warmth. She cared and everyone knew it! Mrs. Young touched students in ways that other faculty members were unable to. She carried herself in a dignified manner. I once asked her if she were from the islands. She replied, “There are no islands in Kansas, but thank you for the compliment.”
She dressed impeccably and looked everyone directly in the eye. She spoke eloquently and distinctly, and she expected a like response. Pity the child she caught running in the halls who responded to her with, “Aw, man!”

“Man, you say?” She’d look over her shoulder then, she’d calmly respond, “Young man, I don’t see a man here. You must mean Ma’am. And son, if you want it your way, go to Burger King! Now walk.” She did not mete out punishment. Students learned from the consequences of their conduct with Mrs. Young. She did not admonish with a raised voice; she simply raised her eyebrows.

She and I taught in the same school. We were colleagues at opposite ends of the grade spectrum. Most of her students were thirteen through fifteen; mine were three through five years old. Sometimes battle fatigue made us both weary.

“Mine aren’t so different from yours, you know,” one of us would say to the other.

My students could be mouthy and rebellious and hers were sometimes as immature as a preschooler. The seventh and eighth grade students stampeded down the steps and past my classroom on their way to the lunchroom. Most of the faculty didn’t have the stamina or where-with-all to deal with that many out of control, sweaty teens in one place. The noise in the lunchroom was deafening and behaviors were out of control.

When Mrs. Young walked through the lunchroom door, she smiled sweetly at administrators and teachers “on duty” as they leaned against the wall, unable to control the middle school students who hurled food, fists and foul language back and forth. When the students noticed Mrs. Young, a hush fell. Deafening decibels droned to a whisper as she made her way through the crowd. She nodded at the student who earlier had poured out a heart-wrenching story of family illness. She slipped two quarters into the palm of a student who had forgotten his public bus pass. I observed as she prevented altercations before they occurred simply by distracting the participants. “I really admire your running shoes, young man. May I ask where you purchased them?” By the time the student finished bragging, the incident was forgotten. And she moved on. “Pull your pants up, gentleman,” she’d say to a boy wandering around with drooping drawers. The boy, whose actions were far from gentlemanly, would hike his pants up and sit himself down. She looked for a child without a lunch, broke the rules and placed a free lunch ticket in front of him. “Go get something nutritious for me now.” All she had to do was point her finger at a rowdy child clear across the room to get immediate results. Mrs. Young offered healing touches to hurting, abused teens and extra cartons of milk to pregnant girls who came to her for advice and baby booties. She gently tapped a gang-banger on the shoulder and without confrontation said, “Nice cap you have there, sir. No sunshine in here though.” She smiled broadly at him and thanked him when he removed his cap without a wisecrack. Students respected her as they would their grandmothers. She strolled among the hopeless, and the hope-filled, the passing, the failing, the hurting and the helpless. She hooked them one by one. She understood that there was no need to shout to gain attention or cooperation. She knew the school handbook rules – keep your hands off students and your nose out of their business, especially their personal lives; refer students to the social worker. She never played by the rules.

The day that a student flung an open soda can into my classroom, I ranted. “I’m ready to give up teaching. I can’t take it anymore. You’ve been teaching ten years longer than I have. How do you do it day in and day out? They barrel down the steps with total disregard for my students. Administration says they’re too old to be expected to walk single file as my little guys do. They destroy the bulletin boards outside my classroom and graffiti my students’ work.”

“Regardless of their circumstances, each one of these students is a child of God and
deserves the best I have to offer,” she replied. If you have expectations, children live up to them, especially if they know you care. You have to show them that you care.”

The next day when the lunch bell rang, I left my teacher’s aide in charge and walked into the hall with a bag of M&Ms and Mrs. Y’s words resounding in my ears: show them you care. When the kids –some who towered over me –crowded and begged for candy, instead of commanding them to stop running, I doled out candy to those who were walking. I didn’t reprimand those who didn’t comply; I merely thanked those who walked. Within a week, most of the students were proceeding, at least past my classroom, in orderly fashion. At first they complied in order to receive candy or graham crackers. Gradually I stopped with the tangible rewards. I simply thanked the children one by one. Hall duty became easier. With a sense of satisfaction, I walked back into my classroom instead of out the door!

For nearly forty years Mrs. Young taught language arts and a different set of three R's than many of her colleagues. Her students learned the power of respect, responsibility and reassurance. Within each child she planted not only the seeds of learning, but love and hope. She taught me how to fertilize each student’s heart and soul.


Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Great essay, Linda! Such a gift, to be a teacher of that caliber, and to be instructed by one. My freshman year of high school we had a language arts teacher like that. Miss Perrault was only about 4'9", and weighed about as much as a sparrow. She had long black hair and dark eyes. And when she walked into the classroom all she ever had to do was stand still and fold her hands together. The whole class shut up, just like that. She never raised her voice. She acted as if she expected us to sit up, behave, and perform well; even the most unruly students--miraculously--did. She was an unlikely peacekeeper, being so tiny, but her presence packed a punch. Great teacher, nice lady.

I love that you used positive reinforcement rather than negative. It really does work!

Bookie said...

What a great piece, Linda! I can't believe the editors changed their minds...did they say why? Their loss!!!

Debora said...

What a tribute! I know a few "Mrs. Youngs." Children really do rise (or sink) to the level expected them don't they? This was good for me to read as the school year approaches. Thank you.

Lyndylou said...

Wow now that is some teacher :)

Linda O'Connell said...

Thanks ladies. Many faculty members didn't like her; she made them look bad :)

Sadly, she died from a liver disorder, diagnosed too late.

Janet, said...

A wonderful essay, Linda. I wish there were more teachers like her, the other teachers shouldn't not like her, they should try to be like her.

Chatty Crone said...

Wish there were MORE teachers like that around.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Linda! Teachers like that are precious indeed. Sorry to hear that she passed away, but hopefully she knew that she made a difference to the lives of students in your school.

Also--I see that you were able to fix your signature line on Wordpress comments--the link goes to your wonderful blog now! Congrats...

Tammy said...

The NEA made a bad move passing this up. I cried. I have known old Mrs. Young, and I bet most of us have. She is a lady and an educator and a demi-god, all rolled into one, and this is a wonderful tribute.

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