Last fall, I visited my mom in Wyoming. She used the opportunity to do some major house cleaning which included the passing on of a lifetime of paper treasures. Every finger painting, mother’s day card, letter to Santa and term paper I had ever created was ceremoniously dumped in my lap one evening. I relived a lot of my childhood leafing through those papers. Some good, some not so much. What I touched that took my breath away, what I couldn’t put down, were the report cards.
In my hands I held the perfect penmanship of my grade school teachers. As I read their words and looked at their assessments of my abilities, I started to see how I had become and not become what I am today. Holding onto those fragile pieces of paper, I felt my adult-sized body begin to shrink until I was once again the girl wearing my favorite smiley-face jumper, the one my mom had made me at her Sears sewing class.
I loved school. I loved how it felt safe and you could always count on it to smell like a bologna sandwich and oranges. I honestly can’t remember much I didn’t like about school. Maybe that’s why I was caught by surprise when I read my old report cards and discovered that my teachers did not always see the perfect student that I had intended to be.
1st Grade – Mrs. Muzzey
I can still feel it now. That painful shyness. The fear of being wrong. The courage it took me to read my page of Tip and Mitten or Jack and Janet out loud to the class. And I remember not wanting to be left behind. I was always running after, always trying to keep up, always trying to grab someone’s hand. Because I was quiet, maybe I thought I would be forgotten. I’m not sure how to interpret the 1969 grading scale except to say I had a lot of check marks by the word “occasionally”.
3rd Grade – Mrs. Hunter
“likes to talk to neighbors…can’t always listen…doesn’t always add to discussion even though she has good ideas.”
This was the year I discovered that my friends lived in worlds I would like to inhabit. That they could take me places, even if just through a classroom conversation, that I could not go at home. It was the year I began to understand what I was hearing and learned to block it out. It looks like the fear of being wrong, of not putting yourself out there just in case you had made a mistake, was pretty ingrained by this time – even though I knew I had good ideas. I knew it.
4th Grade – Mrs. Reddel
“yes, but quiet…yes, volunteers…yes, dependable…yes.”
I guess by fourth grade I was learning how to work the system. My grades were good enough but more importantly, I was pleasing. I was doing what I was told. I was speaking up – though quietly. I think fourth grade may have been my academic and good behavior peak.
I entered 5th grade in 1972. Our classroom was in a “pod” with movable walls. We had “learning contracts” which allowed us to complete our own weekly lesson plan and we did a lot of “alternative thinking”. That was the year I fell madly in love with my teacher, Mrs. Molloy. Just writing out her name makes me sigh with longing. There was something about her that I wanted to wrap myself up in. I would have lived the rest of my life in her classroom if given the chance. She was magic.
Luckily, 1973 and 6th grade brought me back to Mrs. Molloy for language arts and social studies, the two classes where I really shined. I survived the rest of the day just so I could sit in her room and watch her at the chalkboard. And that leads me to my last grade school report card. The one that brought me to tears.
“Don’t you ever worry – I couldn’t be more proud. Love, Mrs. M.”
I have absolutely no recollection of ever reading these words before that moment at my mom’s this past fall. What did she know? Even now, my heartbeats faster, I choke back tears, and I long to run to her and ask. What did you see in my eyes? What did you read between the lines of all of those stories I wrote for you? Why did you write that? Those words, I touch them over and over again. There is something in those words that only a great teacher could convey. Something that now, 37 years later, makes me feel so understood.
Mrs. Molloy? Remember when I thought my name was too different? No one was named Melissa back in the 70’s. I could never find my name pre-printed on a mug or a key chain. Under the wise council of my best friend, Liza, I decided I’d like to change my name to Lissa. Somehow, I even found the confidence to make this desire known to you, though I never told my mom. I’ll never forget that moment when I raised my hand to answer a spelling question and you said, “Yes, Lissa?” I shrunk back in my chair as the whole class turned to stare at me, but you stood there straight-faced and patiently waited for my answer. Plus, you never returned my papers and asked me to use my proper name.
“Monkey’s First Day, by Lissa”
And, when I quietly started writing my full name on my papers again, I didn’t need to say anything, you knew that it was time to go back to calling me Melissa.
Then there was that time when I wanted to write the very best story you had ever read and I didn’t believe that I could do it without some extra help. So I re-imagined one of my favorite picture books, Fredrick, about a field mouse who absorbs everything lovely and shares it with his family during the cold grey winter. I changed it just enough to make it sound like just maybe it had been my own idea. I remember you marveled at it, looked at me trying to assess whether or not I had written it. You said out loud, “Wow, this is a great story. You wrote this?” And I couldn’t lie to you. I was more afraid of losing your respect for lying than of getting into trouble for cheating. So I told you the truth. I don’t remember what happened next, but I know I never felt afraid or ashamed. And I always wrote my own stories after that.
You never let me do less than my best. You wouldn’t let me just get by. Maybe you knew that I could do that at home. There was too much other stuff going on behind our big red front door – as long as I wasn’t making waves, passing was good enough. But not for you. You made me feel like I could step out of my brother’s shadow and find my own way to shine. And you always made sure to focus on what I was doing best before you gently implied there were places I could do better.
“Melissa continues to work independently and to achieve at a high level. Please ask her about arithmetic homework.”
You saw the “needs to talk louder” me. The” likes to talk to neighbors” me. The “in a hurry” me. The “not performing up to potential” me. But you made it safe for me to show you the rest of me, too. I don’t know what you knew exactly, but you knew something was getting in my way. Even before you told me you were proud of me, I felt it. And while your wish that I should never worry didn’t come true, it comforts me to no end that you dreamed that dream for me.