Lucy Lange read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” one chapter a day to her third-grade class back in the 1970s. Mrs. Lange had a brunette flip, the tiniest remnant of a childhood lisp, and an endless supply of kindness. She brought Soma puzzles to her classroom and let us work them for rewards of Sweet-Tarts from a bowl on her desk.
And she read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” aloud to us every day until it was done. Did I mention that? As soon as it was over, I wanted her to start again. This was my first experience of book nostalgia. Mrs. Lange was the reason.
In seventh grade, Shelly Buckholz and I spent a week in Old Quebec with our French class. A snowstorm extended our stay an extra couple of days. Cars parked in the shadows of Le Chateau Frontenac were windshield-high in drifts. We wandered the city practicing our Ohio-girl French, which had been taught to us by our gangly duck-footed teacher, who also led us in “Frere Jacques” and other ditties, and who was quietly mocked by some of the boys for being presumed gay. Like Mrs. Lange, he was good-natured and generous, and passed along a sticky appreciation for words and how they morph across cultures.
In high school, Carol Bush told me I could write, and encouraged me to study journalism.
An eccentric old English teacher (he probably wasn’t that old at the time) nudged us through readings so dramatic that we actually understood some of the Shakespeare plays.
A prissy home ec teacher taught us a slick way to measure shortening in a cup of water and pressed the point about the value of a seam-ripper. I will never again make an A-line skirt or a halter top, but because of her I can thread the needle on a sewing machine, and I made Raggedy Ann dolls for my kids for Christmas when they were little.
The Vietnam vet who taught 10th grade business is literally the only reason I know debit from credit.
And in 12th grade, my Spanish teacher did palm readings and promised me I was a “late bloomer.” I sure wasn’t blooming in high school, so I clung to that reading like the last canteen of water on a trek across the Sahara.
I could go on and I’m not even to college yet. But then again, you have your own list of influential teachers, too, right?
Last week, one of the sons of the Republican Party’s presidential nominee played upon that old canard about failing schools and lazy teachers. Applause all around, I imagine — I just read about it after the fact. Even third-hand, the message boils my blood.
My own school career has been in the rearview mirror for a long time now, although I went back to college again in 2009. Still, I know that just as they did in the 70s, teachers work harder than many people making two or three times their salary. They leave imprints on lives for decades. Tap on the skull of someone who has succeeded in some field, and a story springs forth of a teacher who exerted life-changing influence at a critical moment. It’s so common as to be cliché.
Not every teacher is stellar. True then, true now. But the ones who take on education as a calling stay with us forever.
Pretty magical, when you think of it.