Monday, April 21, 2014

A Teacher Is ... The Power Of One

In 1960 I was in the 6th grade at P.S. 90 Elementary School in Queens, NY. My teacher's name was Mr. Zimmler. He was the first male teacher I ever had and to say that he was unique was an understatement.

Mr. Zimmler was a short, stubby man with a ring of shocking, dark black hair around a bald head. Everything about him was stubby, right down to his fingers. Nevertheless, he wore a dark suit to school every day even though he always looked like he was terribly uncomfortable in it.

There are two things I remember most about him other than how he looked. One was that he loved to read, and he shared that love with his class. At the end of each day about 15 minutes before the bell would ring, he would take out a book and read to us. He had a deep, resonating voice and he would read from the classics, from all different genres, with passion and feeling. His special love was the Civil War, and when he read "A Stillness At Appomattox," you could hear a pin drop in the room. When the bell rang, we would all utter a collective moan knowing we had to wait until tomorrow to hear what happened next.

The other thing I remember about him was that he was a man who observed the proprieties in life which included how his class behaved. He would tolerate no insubordination, no lack of self-control. He addressed each of us by our surnames, as in Miss Smith and Mr. Jones. His favorite method of punishment for any infringement of the rules was the dreaded Composition. Now these were no ordinary compositions. These were very specific and very long, at least to an 11 or 12 year old. "Mr. Jones, tonight you will write a 500 word composition on why it is important to do your homework," or, "Miss Smith, 800 words tonight on why it is impolite to comb your hair in class."

Now I was an avid student, always ready and willing to learn, so my assignments never had anything to do with not doing homework, or paying more attention to my appearance than to what was going on in class. No, my assignments always had to do with my mouth, or, rather, my inability to keep it closed. I was a woman with causes, lots of them, not the least of which was inequality, both with the civil rights of African Americans, and with women's rights. This translated in class into lectures to my male classmates on inappropriate language and behavior around the "women" in the room, many of which got me no satisfaction and a lot of punishment compositions on topics like why it was un-ladylike to hit Frank over the head with a notebook if I didn't like what he called me. However, rather than address my own failings, I would launch into one of my tirades on freedom of speech as long as it didn't cross the boundaries of good taste, or why women needed to be treated as equals. He never said a word when I handed in my epic essays the next morning, just said thank you and went on with his day. By June I was up to 1,000 words.

On the last day of school, during our traditional homeroom party, he called me aside and asked me to follow him down the hall. I could not imagine what I had done now. Usually we did not know whether we had gotten promoted until the report cards were handed out right before we left, neither did we know who our teacher for the next year would be until then either. Mr. Zimmler stopped in front of the room of a 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Rothholtz, who was also an English teacher. He told me to go in as she wanted to see me, and then return to his room "post haste."

She greeted me warmly and invited me to sit down next to her desk. She opened a folder that was laying there and, low and behold, there were all of my punishment compositions. She told me that Mr. Zimmler had brought them to her attention. I started to sweat: my reputation was preceding me. Then she said that such talent needed to be nourished. She gave me a reading list for over the summer with names like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, then handed me a book called, "So You Want To Be A Journalist." She said she was looking forward to working with me in September.

When I got back to my class room, Mr. Zimmler said nothing but his smile said everything.

One person alone can change lives. Each in our own way, we touch the lives of others. Whose life can you touch today?

And so it is.