His name was Ray Rinehart, but naturally we, his fifth-graders, called him "Mr. Rinehart." I was a timid 10-year-old on the first day of class, and the teacher's bullfrog rumble made me tremble in my tennis shoes. A man teacher was a new idea to me, and one I didn't like. One morning, he said, "Pick your best friend in this class and push your desk right next to his."
Huh? We stared at each other. A girl raised her hand. "Are you telling us to put our desks beside our best friend's desk?"
"I am. This way, you can help each other."
The room buzzed. Other teachers separated buddies. Obviously, this guy didn't have a clue.
When I complained of my new teacher with his weird notions, my mother said, comfortingly, "Terry, he's just a man. Just a person, like everyone else."
As it turned out, she was wrong. In my life, he turned out to be a person unlike anyone else.
The very next day, as I fidgeted over my page of math problems, Mr. Rinehart stopped at my desk. "Trouble?"
I nodded speechlessly.
"Have you asked your seat-mate for help?" Before I could shake my head, he suggested gently, "Why don't you?"
My friend took one look at my paper and said, "How can you work or even think in such a mess?" She scrubbed her eraser across my smeary scribbles and half-erasures. "There!" she said. "Start with a clean page. It'll make a huge difference!" It did, and it never would have occurred to me without her advice. Huh, I thought. Well, what do you know?
Mr. Rinehart on yard duty was different from any other teacher. He didn't have the invisible "I am a grown-up" chalk-line drawn around him. We were able to talk with him as if he were our age, no holds barred. In his turn, he spoke with us as if we were adults, listening to our opinions with interest and offering his with no strings attached.
That's the year I was terrified of nuclear war. Frequent bomb drills huddled us beneath our school desks. Family friends built an underground bomb shelter. In my house, we had a cardboard box of supplies stashed in the hall closet, "just in case." My friends and I spent quite a bit of time discussing "when we're bombed." What would we do?
On the playground one day when Mr. Rinehart wandered up, I asked what he thought. He, never hesitating to share big ideas, said, "We should celebrate every moment of life." He looked around the playground at the kids playing foursquare, jumping rope, and leaping for the tetherball and added, almost to himself, "Be sure to do what you most love." It was obvious to me that he was taking his own advice.
I brought to fifth-grade a passionate hatred of physical education class. I couldn't organize my too-long legs into a run; couldn't catch, hit, or throw a ball. I participated in PE only because I was forced to.
Our school's dark gray basement held the cafeteria and a large room for gymnastics on rainy days. That basement room was where Mr. Rinehart held his PE classes, which were dance lessons.
"Courage," Mr. Rinehart whispered to me the first day. We waltzed and learned to polka, but mostly we square-danced. Our teacher managed to call, man the record player, dance, and instruct simultaneously. I was amazed to discover everyone, even the most graceful runner, the most gifted ball-player, was stumbling as much or more than I was. Dancing came relatively easily to me.
When I had Mr. Rinehart for a partner, he counted softly in my ear. At the end of the dance, he'd whisper, "You're a good dancer. Don't forget it." It was so much fun, I forgot it was PE.
For a social studies project, we were to pair off and give a report to the class. "Be creative," Mr. Rinehart urged us. "Make it fun."
My friend and I, two bashful and bookish introverts, chose San Francisco as our topic. We sang and danced to a tune from "Flower Drum Song." It started, "Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA!" We practiced every recess, every lunch hour, and after school for weeks until it was second nature. But, in spite of my familiarity with our routine, stage fright clamped my throat the morning of our performance. I fixed my eyes on Mr. Rinehart, who grinned and nodded from the back of the room, seeming not to notice my voice, high and thin with terror.
'BRAVO!" he shouted, clapping thunderously, when we made our final bows. No doubt his applause was for victory over self-consciousness more than the caliber of our talent, but no Broadway star showered with roses could have felt prouder than I did at that moment.
"Were you surprised?" we asked Mr. Rinehart after class that day.
"Not in the least." He shook his head. "You were courageous, as I expected you to be."
"I wasn't brave," I confessed. "I wanted to cry or throw up or run out of the room."
"Yes, but you did it anyway; that's called bravery. It's not about how you feel, it's about how you act."
Wow. His words arrowed into me, striking a rare bull's-eye of total understanding. It was one of my life's most tremendous "Aha!" moments. When Mom asked that evening, "What did you learn in school today?" I doubt I replied, "The very nature of courage." But I do know I left Mr. Rinehart's classroom equipped with knowledge no quiz could test: truths about cooperation and joy, respect and bravery. Truths about my uniqueness that have lasted my lifetime.