A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bashing Teachers

(Above: Madame)
Two weeks after the massacre in Newtown, I still can't stop thinking about the 20 little children who were murdered – or the ones who survived, either.
But today I want to talk about the teachers. Not just those who sacrificed their lives to protect the children in their care, but also the others, who saved hundreds of other kids by following the safety plan drawn up by principal Dawn Hochsprung, who lost her life trying to tackle the shooter.
They locked doors, hid children in closets and cabinets, and desperately did anything they could think of – leading the kids in drawing, coloring or singing softly – to keep them distracted, even as they knew that other children and their own colleagues were dying nearby.
Teachers deserve all the praise that's being heaped on them today. But how soon will it be before we go back to insulting them, paying them peanuts, slashing their pensions and benefits, crushing their unions, cutting their school budgets so they're forced to dig into their own pockets to buy such basic school supplies for their students as pencils and paper, making them teach to standardized tests instead of imbuing the kids with the love of learning, and blaming them for everything that's wrong with the education system?
We claim to love our children; but we pay teachers, who spend more time with our kids each day than we do, less than we pay plumbers. The obvious conclusion: We care more about our toilets than we do about our children.
We entrust our children, who are our very future, to teachers to be educated, nurtured, comforted and socialized. And, as was demonstrated in Newtown, sometimes teachers are even called upon to throw themselves into harm's way to protect them.
They do all this because teaching is a labor of love. (It sure ain't a way to get rich.) And the kids appreciate it, even if we don't.
Let me tell you about a teacher much closer to home named Sarah Wadsworth. She taught French at Petaluma High School, and she was the strictest teacher in the school. She was tough as nails and held the kids to impossibly high standards, and they adored her for it.
As my young friend Lesley, now a junior at Cal, put it, "You always made sure you did your French homework before you did anything else."
"Madame," as the kids called her, was constantly on their case for dressing like grunges. She herself was always turned out perfectly, like a typical Frenchwoman. A familiar sound in the hallways was the click-clack of her high heels.
Last Feb. 1 Madame died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain aneurism. She was only 51.
The next day, all her students showed up at school dressed to the nines, including high heels. And they all took new names.
Lesley's younger sister, Sierra, a senior, is now calling herself Eponine, after a character in "Les Miserables." All her friends have taken similar monikers.
And they plan to dress the way Madame would have wanted them to next Feb. 1, the anniversary of her death, and turn it into an annual tradition.
I can't think of a lovelier tribute – or a better demonstration of the difference a great teacher can make in so many young lives.

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