My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

Every September, I have to memorize new rosters, create new seating charts, and manage the needs of dozens of new students. This year, I’m sharing a different kind of roster–a roll call of former teachers who helped me learn not only the kind of teacher but the kind of human being I strive to be. Some good, some…not so good.

First up, some of my personal childhood favorites:

  • My first grade teacher, Miss Conrad,  taught me not all superheroes wear capes. As beautiful and powerful as Wonder Woman, she easily lassoed twenty-some fidgety six-year-olds into learning groups that actually learned–and liked it. Before differentiation was the educational buzzword, Miss Conrad designed our reading groups as cross-sections of abilities and personalities. Of course, I knew none of that then. I only knew that I loved her and I would do anything for her. I was the best reader in the class but terribly, awkwardly shy, and one day she put me in charge of my group. In that moment I felt that like her, I could do anything.
  • A few weeks into the school year, overcrowding sent our two sixth grade classes to a building twenty minutes further away, and Mr. Keim made it an adventure. One weeks-long social studies unit I recall particularly well. He played the role of a third world dictator and randomly assigned us roles ranging from field workers, landowners, military, the US, and the USSR. Rules, rewards, and punishments regulated our interactions, including how we could wrest control from those in charge and foment change among the disenfranchised. I was one of two US envoys responsible for negotiating and maintaining trade agreements and diplomatic relations. It was a game, it was fun, and like nearly everything Mr. Keim taught us that year, it showed me that true education extends beyond the classroom walls.
  • Nobody wanted Mr. Oberholtzer. I had him twice: senior English in eleventh grade and AP Lit in twelfth.   Mr. Oberholtzer looked like Ted Cassidy’s Lurch and was equally intimidating. He rarely used the chalkboard and never walked the rows. He never needed to. He taught from the confines of his squeaky swivel chair but somehow could see through the four students ahead of me in the middle row and know I was daydreaming. Until Mr. Oberholtzer, I was a voracious reader on a junk word diet. He taught me that there is a whole list of books I should have read by now. Surely you’ve read… he would say, disbelief lowering like storm clouds. I believed I’d let him down personally, so I would scribble authors and titles in my planner, scurry to the library, and read my acquisitions hoping he would mention them again in class.  He was the most challenging teacher I ever had, and after I graduated I returned to thank him personally.
  • Then, Central Dauphin’s honors track accelerated our curriculum so that incoming seventh-graders skipped over seventh-grade coursework directly into eighth, keeping our schedules virtually identical through ninth grade. However, geography and an incomprehensible districting plan sent most of my junior high classmates to a high school different from my own.  This meant I began tenth grade knowing no one in any of my junior-level classes, classes peopled with those who had no time for a quiet, scared-of-her-own-shadow sophomore. Mrs. Corbett, my newspaper adviser and homeroom teacher throughout high school, didn’t care about any of that. Despite my initial silence, she recognized that I had something to say and I should say it. She encouraged me to write the stories I wanted to tell, then gave me the power to encourage others by naming me assistant editor my junior year, editor my senior. And when the Harrisburg Patriot-News came asking for names for its writing internship, she gave them one–Mine–and her recommendation helped me land the coveted spot.  

My freshman year of college, Mrs. Corbett was killed by a drunk driver. I know I thanked her for all she did for me. I don’t know whether I ever thanked her enough. …

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