Yesterday I received a package and a letter from my dad:
I remember Mrs. C., your kindergarten teacher, gave you a dreidel. I had never seen one of those before either and so this was new to me, too. As I recall, Mrs. C. also taught you a little Jewish history to go with the dreidel. Anyway, while walking around the JCC, with some of the most beautiful arts and crafts on display, I ran across this dreidel. I thought of Mrs. C and had to get this for you for Chanukah.
I smiled from ear to ear when I read my dad’s letter and un-crinkled the folds of packing material. Inside was a beautifully crafted glass dreidel. I immediately spun it. Nun.
I don’t think my dad knew how much I cherished the unique gift from Mrs. C., but my first encounter with a dreidel made such an impression that I’m still absolutely delighted every time I see one. Mrs. C. did indeed teach our class the names of each of the four symbols - nun, gimmel, hey, shin - embossed on our dreidels, as well as the dreidel game. We each made our own clay dreidel, too, and then learned and sang the Dreidel Song. I'm not sure what happened to my little dreidel given by Mrs. C., but I still have my prized, if slightly malformed, handmade clay dreidel.
As a child, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was the beneficiary of a comprehensive education born on university campuses in the 1960s. Given the political and social climate then, college professors had probably demanded that their students be interested and involved, not just memorize data for exams. In turn, my young teachers required the same of their own students. They had high expectations and our coursework was challenging, but that's only apparent in retrospect. At the time, I simply completed what the teachers assigned; I never thought I couldn’t.
Elementary school prepared me well for my subsequent years in school, especially because I was exposed to a spectrum of subjects. There were the three Rs, of course, but more specifically I had to write poems, haikus and limericks, do research for reports (and therefore learn how to use the Dewey Decimal System), and make presentations. Art was a component of our curriculum every single year. Our school also had a music program, thanks to Ms. Z., including a band and a choir. And P.E. wasn’t the place to be delicate. Girls were equally as competitive as the boys, maybe more so.
Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all avant-garde progressiveness and open-minded cultural exploration. Diversity was virtually nonexistent, as was sensitivity to differences that didn’t comport with the norm. I was a brown girl at a public elementary school in the 1970s, in a small-ish city, in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood. With the exception of a few rogues, my older teachers were generally awful and ignorant, holding fast to notions of gentry. Mrs. O. took every opportunity to yell at and humiliate me in front of my entire class. I couldn’t wrap my seven-year old mind around why she hated me so much since I was obedient and earned As on everything. Mrs. L. incomprehensibly assumed that my mom made all of my dresses (every Asian woman is a seamstress, right?). One day she took me aside to explain that she was going to move my best friend so I could be desk-paired with the new girl from the Philippines. When I explained that I didn’t speak the language, Mrs. L. said, “Oh, she speaks English. I just thought this would be best.” Then there was the lovely Mrs. S. who regularly called us “retards”.
These older teachers and their simpleton ilk were, I imagine, the forebears of eventual lawsuits, restrictions, and mis-guided intentions (I’m talking to you, Banned Book List authors) that mire today’s public school systems. Compounding the problem are union demands, politics, and vaporizing education funds, all of which push the best interests of students to the bottom of the priority list.
Despite the limits now present in public schools, my dad said that children are even smarter these days (he tutors fifth graders). We both agree that, as a society, this is what we should strive for, children who are smarter than the generation prior. Though children aren’t able to rely on the K-through-12 school system in the same way that my generation did, they are able to take advantage of our knowledge-24/7 world and technologies that will likely outpace the ever-increasing deficits in public education.
Still, there’s no substitute for the Mrs. C.s of the world. They might be formal educators or neighbors or parents. They drive our appetites to learn, to create, to grow. No technology could possibly replicate this fundamental relationship. You’re probably lucky enough to know a Mrs. C. or two, but better yet, be a Mrs. C.