Growing up in a small Western Mass. town, I was one of three students of color that I remember in my Junior/Senior High School. The only three in grades 7-12. I had come from a bilingual preschool in NY, and then a tiny, parent-run multicultural philosophy-based alternative school based at the university. That school closed after my fifth grade class graduated. Suddenly I found myself amidst an almost all-white student body, kids who had known each other all their lives and whose families had grown up in town also.
A few years after starting school there, my neighbor, who waited at the bus stop with me, called me "spic" - the first time that had happened to me. A few doors down, another neighbor used to shoot his BB gun at our dog, yelling, "Get that stupid Puerto Rican dog out of my yard!" When I went on a school trip to New York, one of my classmates shouted, "Duck!" as we drove through the Bronx. Needless to say, I was straddling 2 very different worlds.
At school, many teachers mispronounced my name. I never quite felt like I fit in - except for with my good friends. There were 2 teachers who stood out from all the others; they are the ones I think of when we are asked that prompt in professional development, "Think back to your favorite teachers - what was great about them and how do they influence your teaching?" I feel forever grateful to them for their teaching and for making a place for me at school.
One of these teachers I was lucky to have coffee with this weekend. I still vividly remember a unit on the Holocaust that Mr.Hansbury taught us. He respected us enough and treated us like mature people by showing us graphic photos of Jews in concentration camps. My friends and I spent countless hours of our free time in Mr.Hansbury's little office working on organization and other projects he gave us - or sometimes just hanging out. We like to call him "Bob" teasingly, but to be truthful I can't even call him Bob today!
Once, I wrote a paper for class and Mr.Hansbury gave it back to me with a big "B-" on it and a note saying "You can do better than this." I was mortified and upset, but my mom thought he was being helpful by giving me another chance. I rewrote the paper and got it back with a much better grade and having learned a lesson. I was certainly more careful about my work after that.
Madame Christian was my French teacher from 9th - 12th grades. She will always be remembered by the phrase "en francais, en francais!" as she tried so hard to get us to speak in French. Little did I know that I would be repeating that phrase myself at my first teaching job 11 years later! Madame was the only French teacher at our school and she worked hard at it, always trying to have interesting activities for us. She planned a memorable trip to Quebec for us, and there it was - I was hooked on French and francophone culture.
When I was 29 both Mr.Hansbury and Madame attended my wedding. Madame sends me yearly anniversary cards. When I think back on these teachers and what was so special about them, this is what I remember:
- they took the time to foster relationships with their students, even before many books were written about the subject
- they respected us
- I never felt judged by them, as I did by other teachers and students
- I felt they understood my background and culture
- I felt I had a place in their classrooms
- They pushed me - gently
- They pronounced my name correctly
It should be no surprise that I double majored in French and Anthropology in college. I am so thankful to have been in the classrooms of Madame and Mr.Hansbury. I can only hope that some of my students will feel the same about me years after being in my classroom. I want them to know that the huge impact that they had on me as a student and as a teacher.
Thanks and merci!!