Sunday, September 09, 2001

Tough love

Greatest teachers

        As the fuse of summer fizzled toward the leafy fireworks of fall, John D'Adonna straightened me out about 4th grade.

        “We're in for it,” he said. “She's really tough.”

        We were sharing cheese sandwiches in a ditch during a truce in our dirt-clod fight with some kids in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor.

        We were all poor, I guess, but none of us knew it. We all attended Mack School, which sat on a hill like a brown brick Alcatraz, looming even larger in our end-of-summer dread like the haunting smell of sharpened pencils, paste and chalk dust.

        John was my very best buddy, along with my other very best buddy Jimmy Yates. We were ethnically diverse, although we didn't know that either. I just knew that John's parents spoke Italian and ate great noodles compared to the burlap sack of navy beans we were living on at home. Jimmy was black, but so was 60 percent of Mack School. Jimmy and I were the only kids I knew from “broken homes.”

        “So how do you know she's tough?” I asked John.

        “I heard stories,” John said with a world-weary look.

        The stories were true. Our new teacher, Miss Green, was fresh from a tour of duty in Germany, where she taught Air Force kids. Yikes. She was a flinty eyed Texan with a slow drawl that made you want to giddyup. She was the polar opposite of Miss Davis, our 3rd grade teacher.

        Miss Davis thought everyone was “outstanding.”

        Miss Green thought everyone was standing still — and had better get moving right now.

        As we gazed through open windows and watched squirrels and birds pretend lazy summer was still chewing a stalk of tall grass under a shade tree, she introduced us to long division and sentence diagrams. We learned how similes sprout like wildflowers and metaphors are hand-picked roses.

        We learned stuff that the rest of my teachers didn't get around to until high school.

        Most of all, we learned to treasure originality and keep our candle of creativity sheltered from the fickle breezes of faddish conformity. She made each of us feel special because she believed in us enough to demand our best.

        Miss Green loaded us into her clattering VW Microbus and took us to see Camelot in Detroit. She took us to museums and the circus, and if we couldn't afford it, she dipped into her purse and paid for priceless memories on her modest teacher's salary.

        She took carloads of poor kids to the top of the world, just to see the view, so we'd know we belonged there as much as anyone else.

        Miss Green was the toughest and best teacher I ever had. John D'Adonna and Jimmy Yates would agree. So would all the kids in Miss Green's 4th grade class who signed a petition that persuaded the principal to let her stay with us in 5th grade.

        My family moved away that year, but we stayed in touch. And many kids in that class made her proud.

        Contrary to what the class-warfare activists and “experts” say, education is not all about money. You can't buy a yearning for learning. No child is poor who has a Miss Green.

        Her spirit and enthusiasm can be found in classrooms in nearly every school. But things have changed at home. Some parents don't care. Some blame schools and politicians for their own neglect. I can't imagine our parents blaming anyone but us when we got in trouble. But we didn't have single moms who were dropouts barely out of their teens.

        Many things have changed, but not the quality of the best teachers.

        When my son got his schedule this year, he looked like he'd just been told to mow Nebraska's lawn.

        “Mr. McCollum is really tough,” he said.

        “Boy,” I thought, “are you lucky.”

        Contact Enquirer Associate Editor Peter Bronson at 768-8301; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Bronson.


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